New Administration Brings Opportunities to Advance Worker Health & Safety

By Stephen Knight, Worksafe

Last week National COSH released the National Agenda for Worker Safety and Health. The report lays out a eight-point plan for national reform based on workers’ lived experience, recommending that we strengthen and enforce safety laws, make anti-retaliation protections real, ensure fair and just compensation, and confront the workplace effects of climate change.

“Workers are sick, broke and dying — because so far during this pandemic, employers, OSHA and our federal government have failed to protect workers from the risk of infectious disease,” said Jessica Martinez, National COSH’s Co-Executive Director.

Worksafe agrees that the new administration needs to reaffirm a commitment to occupational health and safety science, and it needs to send a clear message to employers and the general public that workplace health and safety is key to public health — and absolutely crucial for slowing the spread of COVID.

There are initial positive signs. On his first day in office, the new president signed an executive order (EO) prioritizing worker protection issues. And barely a week later, on January 29, the Department of Labor issued guidance “intended to inform employers and workers in most workplace settings outside of healthcare to help them identify risks of being exposed to and/or contracting COVID-19 at work and to help them determine appropriate control measures.”

The president has appointed longtime worker advocates: Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Deputy Secretary Julie Su (who will soon leave her role heading California’s labor agency). Occupational safety leaders like David Michaels and Doug Parker are advising the administration. President Biden’s January 21 EO ordered the Department of Labor to “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary, and if such standards are determined to be necessary, issue them by March 15, 2021.”

In California of course we have our own “state plan” governing workplace health and safety requirements, aka Cal/OSHA. But there’s still a role for federal involvement, including greater support in terms of resources as well as advocacy in the form of oversight and accountability. We are glad to endorse National COSH’s call in the Agenda to “bolster oversight of OSHA state plans, ensuring that these jurisdictions enact and effectively enforce measures that are at least as effective as […] OSHA requirements.”

The labor agency was intentionally sidelined by the Trump Administration in the middle of an unprecedented workplace safety crisis. It is crucial that President Biden upend this sorry record. The Department of Labor must incorporate the expertise of the occupational health and safety community, including impacted workers. We must make clear that after what our communities have learned and endured in the last few years — we cannot go back to 2016. We must move forward to a far stronger place of voice and power for workers and worker safety.

Worksafe is an advocacy organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the basic right of all California workers to a safe and healthy workplace.