Biden: U.S. will consider emergency rule to protect workers from coronavirus

The government’s worker-safety agency “has been prevented from using its full range of tools to protect workers from COVID-19,” said President-elect Biden on the 50th anniversary of creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. “The number of OSHA inspectors is at its lowest level since 1975, while millions of essential workers are working to keep the country functioning through the pandemic.”

In a statement, Biden said on December 29, “My administration will ask OSHA to determine whether to establish an emergency temporary standard to keep workers safe from COVID-19. I will direct OSHA to enforce worker safety requirements, target the worst violators, and work to increase the number of OSHA inspectors to get the job done. And, I will direct OSHA and other relevant agencies to develop comprehensive strategies for addressing the most dangerous hazards workers encounter in the workplace.”

Biden has yet to name a nominee for Labor secretary.

Unions and labor advocates have faulted the Trump administration for issuing COVID-19 guidelines that are advisory rather than standards that must be met, and for investigating few worker complaints during the pandemic. The administration insisted meatpackers remain in operation last spring despite COVID-19 outbreaks that slowed production. OSHA has levied relatively small fines against employers in the agriculture and food sector, reported FERN in November. For example, it proposed a $13,494 fine against Smithfield Foods for a coronavirus outbreak in which 1,300 workers at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant were infected.

OSHA has reported fines totaling $3.85 million for violations related to the coronavirus and arising from 295 inspections during 2020. Seventeen citations were issued in the week ending on December 24, including $9,639 against Butterball LLC at its turkey plant in Carthage, Missouri. Butterball recently announced it was cutting the workforce in half at Carthage beginning in March, reported the Joplin Globe.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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