Editor's update: On April 9, 2021, President Biden nominated Doug Parker to lead OSHA. If confirmed, he'll replace Jim Frederick as Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of Labor.
President Joe Biden has tapped three seasoned experts to jumpstart the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal government's main worker health and safety agency. Jim Frederick will serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA and will head the agency until a permanent Assistant Secretary is confirmed. Frederick’s experience includes over two decades working for the United Steel Workers' health, safety, and environment department. In his latest role, Frederick served as the assistant director and principal investigator for the department. Biden has also named Chip Hughes, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Worker Education and Training Program, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Pandemic and Emergency Response. This will be a crucial role in the weeks and months ahead. Ann Rosenthal will join the team as Senior Advisor. Rosenthal served as the Associate Solicitor for Occupational Safety and Health at the Department of Labor until 2017 and has decades of legal experience protecting worker health and safety.
Throughout his tenure, former President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed to be looking out for America's workers. He exposed that lie many times over: He never appointed a permanent OSHA administrator, and he nominated regulatory ideologues to key positions at the U.S. Department of Labor. Meanwhile, he and his administrative appointees attacked and weakened a number of worker health and safety protections.
These direct attacks represent only some of the harm Trump did to America's workers. OSHA often takes years to issue new health and safety protections, but Trump’s team slowed progress further — even during a pandemic. Since last March, the agency has steadfastly refused to issue either an emergency or a permanent standard to protect workers from the coronavirus and other infectious diseases.
The Biden-Harris administration and OSHA’s leadership team must do better than the Trump administration. They must transform the agency into a proactive one that truly looks out for the health and safety of all workers.
Here are five actions they can take right away, with the first being the most essential:
- Issue a national emergency standard and permanent standard to protect workers from infectious diseases like COVID-19. This is priority No. 1 for the Biden-Harris OSHA. Workers need a strong national coronavirus standard to protect them from infection on the job, and they need it now. Some states stepped up this year to protect workers from the coronavirus, but a patchwork approach isn’t enough. After a temporary national standard is in place, OSHA should immediately get to work on enacting a permanent one.
- Develop a rule to protect workers from extreme heat. Climate change is making work more dangerous and deadly, putting farmworkers, construction crews, landscapers, and other outdoor workers at higher risk of heat stress and heat-related illness. Indoor workers are also at risk when their workplaces aren’t adequately cooled. It’s long past time for OSHA to develop a protective heat standard that requires companies to give workers frequent breaks, access to shade and plentiful clean drinking water, and health and safety training for both managers and workers. It should also impose meaningful consequences on employers who put workers at risk of heat-related illnesses and deaths.
- Strengthen enforcement and triple the number of workplace inspectors. At current staff levels, it would take OSHA 132 years to inspect every covered workplace once. When the agency does inspect a worksite and find violations, enforcement is often weak and fines too low to deter employers from future abuses. To address this problem, OSHA leadership should work with the labor secretary and the White House to increase the agency’s budget, triple the number of agency inspectors, and hold dangerous employers accountable in meaningful ways. The agency should also seek congressional authority to increase fines so it can more effectively deter abuse.
- Strengthen OSHA’s whistleblower protection program. Our nation’s workers have first-hand knowledge of health and safety hazards in their workplaces. But when they blow the whistle on dangerous conditions, state and federal agencies don’t do nearly enough to protect them from retaliation. Leadership must act to strengthen OSHA’s whistleblower protection program, provide real safeguards against employer retaliation, and empower workers to root out dangerous working conditions.
- Involve workers in rulemaking and enforcement. It’s well past time for OSHA to listen to workers, and the Biden OSHA has a renewed opportunity to lower barriers to worker involvement in the development and enforcement of workplace health and safety standards. Among other things, OSHA should host virtual listening sessions geared toward workers and their representatives; solicit additional information from individual commenters; and lower barriers to involvement by soliciting comments through social media platforms, worker centers, and organizing networks.
Our main worker health and safety agency cannot be dormant, and these are just five of many actions OSHA must take during the Biden administration. COVID-19 and a host of other workplace hazards confront our nation's workers every day; if OSHA doesn’t have their backs, they can’t to do much to improve working conditions. Frederick, Hughes, Rosenthal, and the future head of OSHA have a perfect opportunity to guide the agency into a new era, one where hardworking individuals have the health and safety protections they deserve.
Editor’s note: This post is part of the Center for Progressive Reform’s Policy for a Just America initiative. Learn more on CPR’s website.