The Biden administration is advancing emergency workplace safety rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus after weeks of delay and growing pressure from Democrats and safety advocates.
The Labor Department sent the safety standards to the Office of Management and Budget for review Monday, April 26, according to a DOL spokesperson, the first step before they are released publicly and go into effect.
"OSHA has been working diligently on its proposal and has taken the appropriate time to work with its science-agency partners, economic agencies, and others in the U.S. government to get this proposed emergency standard right," the spokesperson said.
Shortly after taking office, Biden gave the Labor Department a March 15 deadline to decide whether mandatory workplaces safety rules were necessary to protect workers from Covid-19.
But after the deadline passed, the agency said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh requested additional layers of review of the rules "based on CDC analysis and the latest information regarding the state of vaccinations and the variants."
On Monday, April 26, Michigan Democratic Reps. Debbie Dingell, Rashida Tlaib and Andy Levin pressed Biden for an explanation on the status of the rules, as Covid-19 infections and ICU capacity have surged in the state in recent weeks.
House Democrats have also summoned DOL officials and occupational health experts to testify before Congress Friday on the status of coronavirus workplace safety rules promised by Biden.
OMB'S Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is expected to take roughly two weeks before it publishes the requirements, which are then likely to take effect immediately.
The rules are expected to require employers to supply their workers with masks, have a written plan to avert exposure in the workplace and take other precautions that could kick up complaints from businesses over costs as more states relax pandemic restrictions.
The new mandates, which will be laid out in the emergency temporary standards by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, mark the first time since 1983 that the workplace safety watchdog has used its emergency powers to swiftly require employers to provide certain protections to their workers. And the rules mark a significant departure from the Trump administration’s business-friendly approach of providing optional safety guidelines to employers.
The Biden administration rules — which will stay in effect for the next six months — land at the same time many states have started to roll back restrictions on businesses, including mask mandates.
Employers in states that have relaxed their own Covid-19 rules — like Texas and Mississippi — will now have to provide their workers with masks and other protective equipment under the federal OSHA rules, a requirement they did not face until now.
The rules will act as a floor for the 14 states that have instituted their own coronavirus-specific workplace protections.
OSHA has the authority to issue such emergency temporary standards when it determines that “workers are in grave danger due to exposure to toxic substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.”
The standards are open for public input and the Labor Department is required to adopt permanent safety standards within six months.
The emergency temporary standards can be challenged by affected parties in federal court.
The Biden administration’s stricter enforcement posture during the pandemic comes after a year of a far more lenient approach from the Trump administration.
The Trump-led OSHA declined to issue a workplace safety standard, instead providing optional guidelines that it said would give employers flexibility as more information about the virus was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But an audit of the Trump OSHA’s enforcement during the pandemic by the Labor Department’s independent watchdog found that the agency did not provide the level of protection workers needed during the crisis and left workers’ safety at increased risk.
The report, released in March, noted that while OSHA has received an influx of safety complaints during the pandemic, the agency suspended most of its on-site safety inspections last year, instead opting for informal inspections that typically result in a phone call to the facility, putting employee’s safety at greater risk.
Biden and Democrats now in control of both chambers of Congress have vowed to step up enforcement.
Lawmakers set aside $75 million for OSHA in the massive stimulus package Biden signed into law in March.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Labor Secretary Walsh said safety standards should not be seen as “terrible” for businesses. “This is about protecting their workforce, it’s about protecting their companies,” he said.