On 21 January President Biden issued an Executive Order calling for increased federal emphasis on worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.1 In his Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, President Biden announced that “it is the policy of my Administration to protect the health and safety of workers from COVID-19” and declared the “the Federal Government must take swift action to reduce the risk that workers may contract COVID-19 in the workplace,” including “issuing science-based guidance” on worker safety. The Executive Order does not create any immediate changes in companies’ obligations, but it calls for swift action by the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue updated guidance, consider issuing emergency workplace safety standards, and increase enforcement related to COVID-19.
In relevant part, the Executive Order instructs OSHA to take the following steps:
- Within two weeks, issue revised guidance on COVID-19 workplace safety in consultation with other appropriate federal agencies;
- Consider whether emergency temporary workplace safety standards on COVID-19 are necessary, and if they are, issue them by 15 March;
- Review OSHA enforcement efforts to identify any necessary changes to better protect workers and ensure equity in enforcement;
- Focus OSHA enforcement on violations that put the largest number of workers at risk of COVID-19; and
- Conduct a multilingual outreach effort to inform workers of their rights.
The Executive Order also calls on other agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Transportation, to “explore mechanisms” to protect workers that fall outside OSHA’s jurisdiction.
This Executive Order signals the potential for a significant shift in federal involvement in COVID-19 workplace safety issues. Food companies should monitor these developments closely and be prepared to assess and update their workplace safety plans quickly in light of changing federal guidance and standards.
We will continue to monitor this and other developments related to COVID-19 and the Biden transition.
1 Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety (21 Jan. 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/21/executive-order-protecting-worker-health-and-safety/.