This article has been saved to your Favorites!

OSHA Rolls Out Biden-Ordered Virus Protection Program

By Al Barbarino · March 12, 2021, 7:51 PM EST

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an initiative to bolster its efforts to protect workers at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job, a direct response to a January executive order from President Joe Biden.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it will focus enforcement on companies with large numbers of workers who are at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Through the new national program launched Friday, OSHA said it will focus its inspection and enforcement efforts on "companies that put the largest number of workers at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus," while protecting workers against retaliation for logging complaints about those risks.

"This program seeks to substantially reduce or eliminate coronavirus exposure for workers in companies where risks are high, and to protect workers who raise concerns that their employer is failing to protect them from the risks of exposure," Jim Frederick, the agency's principal deputy assistant secretary, said in a statement.

Under the program, OSHA will conduct both new inspections as well as follow-ups of work sites inspected in 2020 to make sure that potentially hazardous conditions have been corrected, the agency said in a memo.

The program beefs up OSHA's oversight of "high hazard" industries that expose the greatest number of workers to "serious risk," including hospitals, assisted living centers, nursing homes and other health care and emergency response providers treating COVID-19 patients, the agency said.

In addition, workplaces or settings with high numbers of coronavirus-related complaints or cases will come under greater scrutiny, according to the memo, including correctional facilities, meatpacking plants, poultry processing plants and grocery stores. 

The agency said it would distribute anti-retaliation information during inspections, providing additional outreach opportunities for would-be tipsters and "promptly referring" retaliation allegations to the U.S. Department of Labor's whistleblower protection program.

The program comes after Biden issued an executive order on Jan. 21, saying, "Ensuring the health and safety of workers is a national priority and a moral imperative." He added that health care and other essential workers, "many of whom are people of color and immigrants, have put their lives on the line" during the pandemic.

OSHA's announcement comes one day after Biden, in his first prime-time address and one year into the pandemic, told Americans that "there is light at the end of this dark tunnel," setting a goal for small gatherings to occur by July 4 to "mark our independence from this virus."

The agency said the program would remain in effect for up to one year, with flexibility to amend or end the program as the pandemic subsides. While 28 states and territories have adopted their own OSHA-approved protections for employees and implemented similar enforcement programs, the agency added that it "strongly encourages" the remaining states to adopt the federal program.

OSHA's own compliance safety and health officers will have "every protection necessary" for the inspections,  the agency said. 

Frederick, echoing Biden's words, added, "We know there is light at the end of the tunnel. But until we are past this pandemic, workers deserve a Labor Department that is looking out for their health."

--Editing by Karin Roberts.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.