On his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order instructing the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue revised workplace safety guidance intended to increase protections for employees exposed to the COVID-19 virus at work. While the order does not explicitly require OSHA to issue a temporary emergency safety standard for COVID-19 practices, such a standard is widely anticipated to be issued by the March 15 date included in the order.
In addition to the safety guidance, President Biden instructed OSHA to review its enforcement efforts in the face of an increasing number of employee complaints about the lack of safeguards or enforcement of requirements in their workplaces. The president tapped a former United Steelworkers head of union safety to lead OSHA, indicating a general intent to significantly increase enforcement of safety standards.
Once an emergency standard is issued, state OSHA plans such as North Carolina and South Carolina will be under immediate pressure from the federal government to adopt state standards at least as strict as those put into place at the federal level. The standard is likely to incorporate current CDC guidance on avoidance of infection at work, including measures such as mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, and frequent handwashing. In anticipation of ramped up OSHA inspection and enforcement efforts, employers should have in place updated, written COVID-19 policies, and they should make certain that their terms are being uniformly enforced across their worksites.