Biden to Bring Big Changes in Workplace Safety
Attorneys expect COVID emergency standard to be OSHA’s first priority under new administration

by Jessica Folker

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has come under fire for lax enforcement and a lack of guidance on how employers should protect workers from COVID-19. But big changes are expected at the agency under President-elect Joe Biden and his labor secretary nominee, Marty Walsh. Attorneys predict that under the new administration, OSHA will have more inspectors, a bigger budget and will issue new standards on handling the pandemic.

OSHA under the Trump administration has been “somewhat of a rudderless ship,” said Sherman & Howard member Pat Miller.

OSHA has been without a permanent leader for the entirety of President Donald Trump’s term. In November 2017, Trump nominated former FedEx Ground executive Scott Mugno to head the agency as assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, but he was never confirmed and finally withdrew from consideration for the position in May 2019.

“What you saw from OSHA was a lot of the enforcement decisions were left to regional and, in some cases, area offices,” Miller said. “Very few, if any, new standards were promulgated in the last four years.”

Fisher Phillips partner Kristin White said the past four years have been characterized by a drop-off in enforcement. A few regulations issued at the end of Obama’s second term were left on the books but largely unenforced, she said, including an anti-retaliation rule to protect employees who report workplace injuries or illnesses.

The number of OSHA inspectors also reached record lows over the past four years. In January 2019, the agency had only 875 compliance safety and health officers, down from more than 1,000 in 2010, according to the National Employment Law Project. The number of inspections to measure workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals, heat levels and combustible dust explosions dropped by at least 20% between 2016 and 2018.

This complete article appears in the Jan. 18 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other articles from that issue, order a copy online. Subscribers can request a digital PDF of the issue.