What a year 2020 has been! As 2021 begins, it will be interesting to see how a promising COVID-19 vaccine becomes reality and discover what the new presidential administration will mean for OSHA. 

In recent months, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia have enacted emergency temporary standards. Do you think more states will follow?

As reported by the National Safety Congress, former OSHA chief David Michaels has said that protecting the health and safety of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic will be a high priority for President-elect Joe Biden. “That starts with OSHA issuing an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases – something worker advocacy groups and some lawmakers have called for in recent months,” says NSC. 

“I don’t think there’s any question that Biden will issue an emergency temporary standard very early in his tenure,” Michaels said during a Nov. 11 webinar on the post-election future of worker safety and health, hosted by the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities. “I think you have to do that immediately. The importance of that is employers need to know what the rules are.”

Hope for a vaccine

Many believe a vaccine is likely to be ready by early 2021, however, it’s unclear how quickly the general public will be get access. 

As of late November, Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE have sought an emergency use authorization for their vaccine after a study showed it was 95% effective, with one from Moderna Inc. achieving similar results, according to a preliminary trial analysis. The shot from AstraZeneca Plc and its partner, the University of Oxford, stopped an average of 70% of participants from falling ill. Despite the apparently lower efficacy, the British vaccine has some advantages when it comes to distribution, according to Bloomberg News. 

Many questions remain about longevity of protection and how easily vaccines can be deployed. Still, the positive results are welcome as nations across the globe impose tougher restrictions to stem a surge in cases heading into winter. 

A Biden presidency

There’s much talk about what a Biden presidency will do for OSHA. Some predictions include:

  1. Create an emergency temporary standard for COVID-19. Biden has urged President Trump to “immediately release and enforce an Emergency Temporary Standard to give employers and frontline employees specific, enforceable guidance on what to do to reduce the spread of COVID.” Despite this pressure, the Trump administration has stated that it will not be enacting a COVID-19 standard. However, Biden likely will work with unions and other worker advocacy groups to develop a COVID-19 standard if the pandemic continues to impact worker safety in early 2021, especially if no vaccine is immediately available. 
  2. Double the number of OSHA inspectors. During his campaign, Biden called on President Trump to drastically increase OSHA’s enforcement of regulations and guidelines concerning COVID-19. Specifically, he called for the current President to “double the number of OSHA investigators to enforce the law and existing standards and guidelines.” Given this aggressive approach to workplace safety enforcement, Biden likely will increase the number of investigators in OSHA. There are roughly 761 OSHA inspectors working right now, compared to about 1,000 or so who were in place a decade ago. 
  3. Appoint a head of OSHA. Biden has already indicated that he will ensure all appointments to political and permanent positions within the safety agency will be filled. The Trump administration never had a permanent head of OSHA, after nominee Scott Mugno withdrew his name from consideration in 2019.
  4. Stricter oversight of state OSHA plans. Federal OSHA and the 22 state OSHA plans haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. State OSHA plans, like North Carolina and South Carolina, have refused to adopt federal OSHA’s increased maximum penalties, originally adopted under the Obama-Biden administration. Meanwhile, other state plans like Virginia, Michigan, and Oregon have adopted their own Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19, despite the Trump administration’s refusal to do so. Under a Biden administration, expect federal OSHA to work more closely with the state OSHA plans and seek more aggressive enforcement from their state counterparts.