The U.S. Labor Department’s occupational safety agency issued what it described as “stronger worker safety guidance” to help employers combat the spread of the coronavirus in the workplace.
Jim Frederick, the Biden administration’s newly appointed deputy assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the updated guidance is “our first step” to re-establishing “that OSHA is advocating for workers.”
The agency used the guidance to advocate for businesses to establish infection prevention programs, but the advice isn’t legally binding. Its release comes after President Joe Biden ordered OSHA to determine whether there’s a need for emergency temporary standards to protect workers from on-the-job Covid-19 infection.
Frederick and other OSHA and DOL officials who took part in a call with reporters Friday didn’t offer a timeline for when the agency would make that determination or for when an emergency temporary rule could be released.
“At OSHA, we are moving as quickly as possible,” Frederick said.
Biden set March 15 as a deadline for enacting a rule, if the agency concludes a Covid-19 measure is justified under federal requirements for initiating an emergency temporary rule.
The new guidance includes information on how to conduct a hazard assessment, policies for employee absences that don’t punish potentially infected workers if they remain at home, and ways to ensure that coronavirus policies and procedures are communicated to both English- and non-English-speaking workers.
It also offers advice that workers who have been vaccinated should wear face coverings and follow social distance practices.
Ann Rosenthal, who served as DOL’s associate solicitor for occupational safety and health during the Obama and Trump administrations and now works as a senior adviser to OSHA, said part of the guidance is intended to get workers involved in development of an employer’s hazard assessment and infection protection program.
Rosenthal also emphasized the guidance isn’t a substitute for a rule.
“We do not enforce guidance,” she said.
As for enforcement of existing workplace safety rules, Rosenthal said OSHA will streamline the process for issuing Covid-19-related citations so they’re issued more quickly.
Under the Trump administration, Covid-19 citations required several levels of review, which meant OSHA took the entire six months allowed by statute to cite an employer, Rosenthal said.