Since taking office, President Joe Biden has signaled a new openness to the concerns of our nation’s workers — and we at CPR are joining our allies today in calling on his administration to go much further to make workplace safety a top priority.
Biden’s early actions are auspicious. In his first days in office, Biden appointed qualified leaders to key labor posts and signed several executive orders to improve working conditions. Among those orders is one that directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue improved guidance to employers on protecting workers and to determine whether to issue an emergency standard to prevent and mitigate exposure to COVID-19.
Biden also withdrew an effort by the Trump administration to accelerate processing speeds at poultry plants, which would have forced workers to work faster and more closely together on the factory floor — and put workers, and the safety of our food, at greater risk than they already are.
These are important actions — and come in sharp contrast to the previous administration’s appalling failure to support workers during and before the pandemic. But they’re only first steps; we must do much more to better protect workers’ health, safety, economic security, and dignity now and in the future.
To that end, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) has released a “National Agenda for Worker Safety and Health” that outlines steps the Biden-Harris administration must take to achieve these goals. National COSH is holding a national day of action today to call on the administration to take action now, and we at CPR are proud to join their efforts.
As National COSH Co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez notes, “We can’t rely on a vaccine alone” to stop the spread of COVID-19. “In the months ahead, we also need aggressive public health measures to reduce risk for workers, our families, and communities.”
A Shared Agenda
To start, we join National COSH in its call for an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. This standard should require a COVID-19 hazard assessment and control plan; physical distancing and sanitation; proper ventilation; adequate supplies of masks, gloves, and other protective equipment; and other steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. OSHA should follow up with a permanent standard to protect all workers from infectious diseases in the future.
We’re also joining National COSH in calling on the administration to:
- Rebuild OSHA by expanding personnel. The International Labor Organization (ILO) recommends employing one inspector to investigate worker complaints for every 10,000 workers, which would require the federal government to employ 14,703 inspectors. But federal OSHA currently operates with a mere 746 inspectors, the lowest number of inspectors in the agency’s history, according to a recent AFL-CIO report. OSHA’s abysmal enforcement program is alarming at any time — and unconscionable during a pandemic. Federal OSHA must prioritize enforcement, beginning by increasing the number of inspectors.
- Involve workers in the rulemaking process. Workers are intimately familiar with their working conditions but are often excluded in the development of workplace protections. The Biden-Harris administration can lower barriers to worker involvement in this process by intentionally including worker, union, and other worker representatives in planning, decision-making, and enforcement activities.
- Strengthen whistleblower protections. Workers across the country face adverse consequences for asking questions about health and safety, speaking up about concerns, and, in some cases, even for bringing their own protective gear into the workplace. When workers seek recourse through OSHA, the agency often fails to resolve their complaints in a timely fashion. The Biden-Harris administration should ensure the agency has sufficient capacity and personnel to respond quickly to complaints, including by immediately filling investigator vacancies.
These are but a few actions we at CPR and at National COSH are urging the Biden-Harris administration to take to undo damage done by the Trump administration and create a new era of robust workers’ rights.
We laid out our top priorities for Biden’s OSHA, currently headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Frederick, a union veteran, in a recent blog post. And National COSH has outlined its top goals here. As National COSH leaders note, “To protect workers and public health, we need to empower workers from all backgrounds to act on knowledge of our own workplaces, with a seat at the table with employers and government. Together, we can create and enforce fair, sensible laws, regulations, and workplace practices.” We couldn’t agree more.