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Former OSHA Head Talks Biden's Executive Order On Workplace Safety

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin today's program thinking about President Biden's first days in office and the priorities his administration has set forth. This week, the president signed a number of executive orders, many of which focused on combating the coronavirus pandemic. So now we want to focus on one aspect of that critical issue. We're talking about workplace safety.

You'll remember that certain workplaces like meatpacking and food processing plants have been hotspots of coronavirus outbreaks. On Thursday, President Biden signed an executive order calling for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, to do more to protect workers. This includes revising existing safety guidelines and looking into issuing emergency standards.

We wanted to hear more about Biden's plan, so we called David Michaels once again. He is an epidemiologist by training. He was a member of then-President-elect Biden's COVID-19 advisory board. He was the head of OSHA under President Obama, and he currently teaches public health at George Washington University.

Professor Michaels, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID MICHAELS: Oh, thank you, Michel. It's great to be back with you.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask you about this executive order regarding workplace safety. Would it be a fair assumption that you advised on that?

MICHAELS: Yes, but not only that. I've been advocating for it since last January, exactly a year ago. When the cases were coming out of Wuhan, it was very clear we needed to have an emergency standard, and we needed to mobilize OSHA.

MARTIN: So talk a bit more about what you think the most important aspect of this is. It essentially states that OSHA needs to look into the current guidelines and determine what needs to be done. And with your deep background, I'm wondering if that goes far enough.

MICHAELS: Really, what's going on is President Biden is activating OSHA. With OSHA missing in action for all these months, thousands of lives have been lost. And President Biden is telling OSHA, first, consider whether to issue a standard, which OSHA has to do legally. And there's no doubt they will move forward and issue a standard which will have clear requirements for employers to protect workers. He's also told OSHA to ramp up enforcement and to use its resources to engage the hardest-hit communities and those workers who are most at risk.

MARTIN: So I just - so I want to sort of reemphasize that because one of the things you said when you were on this program last spring - you said that the federal government really needs to enforce the guidelines that they issue. But on the matter of emergency standards, is there a way you could kind of describe what those might be in terms that those of us who are not occupational safety experts can understand?

MICHAELS: Sure. OSHA, I'm sure now, is writing that standard. And it's likely to require employers to develop a workplace infection control plan, that every employer will have to have that plan, which will include the common-sense protections that are now very well known - masks, distancing, improved ventilation and disinfection. But to make this work, employers and workers are going to need to together assess how that work is being done and what changes are needed to make the workplace safe.

You know, when I speak with employer groups, I explain that assessing the work processes, the environment and implementing the changes that are going to be required by the standard have to be done collaboratively with workers and their unions since their participation is key to safety.

MARTIN: I'm trying to figure out why one would not impose these standards if it would keep your workers from becoming sick and dying. And I'm thinking that one argument might be cost - that if you - you know, that you don't already have these systems in place like ventilation systems or sort of places for sort of spacing, to allow spacing to occur, that's got to get paid for somehow. So how does that get paid for under these standards? If emergency standards are brought about, who pays for it?

MICHAELS: This was the problem before. In many industries, workers are simply replaceable. If a worker got sick, they would disappear. Another worker would appear at the door. And workers just aren't paid that much, and so employers didn't have any financial incentive to protect those workers.

That will change because now they're risking monetary fines and actually potentially quite large ones, where during the past administration, OSHA did no more than slapping a few wrists. You know, they fined corporate meatpacking giants like Smithfield Foods a few thousand dollars for exposures that sickened hundreds of workers.

MARTIN: As I understand it, these are executive orders subject to the limitations of the Department of Labor. For instance, they don't apply to certain state and local government employers. And as we know, certain state government leaders have been resistant to national standards. They have been resistant to mask mandates, for example. And some of these state leaders are in states where these plants are located - right? - and where these outbreaks have occurred.

So I guess I'm just wondering, how realistic is it that one can create a national workplace safety standard that will actually be adhered to, given that there are places that aren't subject to the authority of the Department of Labor?

MICHAELS: Well, federal OSHA can only go so far, and that's why President Biden has asked Congress to pass legislation strengthening and expanding OSHA's authority in this area to cover public sector workers in those states where they're not covered, for example. There are also issues about transportation workers, for example. OSHA has very limited authority in airplanes. But we know as a regular passenger on an airplane, unless there's a requirement that masks be worn, we're not going to want to fly.

Now, fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control has just issued a requirement that masks be worn on all interstate and global transportation, so that's a step forward. There are lots of steps that can be taken. There are lots of agencies involved. And this is an all-government effort. Every agency is moving forward now to limit transmission of the virus in every environment they have some authority over. And that's the only way we're going to stop this pandemic.

And I'm hopeful. I think with the vaccine coming and all of these requirements to stop transmission immediately, in a few months, we'll start to see some real changes.

MARTIN: Do you think, though, that as the vaccine rolls out, more people will be heading back to work? At least, that's the - sort of the goal. Does that make it easier? I'm asking you to speculate now, which is not really fair. But, I mean, do you think that makes it sort of easier or harder to get buy-in?

MICHAELS: Well, it's going to be a little harder, especially because people will think once they're vaccinated that they're immortal. And to some extent, they will be safe. But we don't know yet whether vaccinated people can spread the virus. And so we're going to need people to wear masks really for - certainly, a few more months till we learn more about this, and we get many more people vaccinated. And we have these protections in place at workplaces, in transportation and stores, other places, to be limiting exposure as much as we can.

MARTIN: That is David Michaels. He is an epidemiologist and professor of public health at George Washington University. He's the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama. Most recently, he served on President-elect Biden's COVID-19 advisory board.

Professor Michaels, thank you so much for joining us once again.

MICHAELS: Well, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.