President Biden signs something
U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Biden signed an executive order Thursday directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue guidance to employers on how to protect workers from COVID-19.

The Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety requires OSHA to release guidance within two weeks to employers on workplace safety during the pandemic and to evaluate whether any emergency temporary standards are needed. The agency then has until March 15 to issue emergency standards, which could include mask-wearing in the workplace.

The order also requires a review of OSHA’s enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 and requires the administration to identify what changes could be made to protect workers, including those within long-term care facilities.

“With OSHA missing in action for all these months, thousands of lives have been lost,” David Michaels, the former head of OSHA under President Obama, told NPR Saturday. “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.”

Biden also has told the agency to ramp up enforcement and to use its resources to help the hardest-hit communities and workers who are most at risk, Michaels said.

The biggest difference, he added, is that employers likely now will risk facing large monetary fines for not complying with the OSHA standard, compared with a minor slap on the wrist they would have faced under the previous administration. Federal OSHA laws can only go so far, however, Michaels said, so the president also has asked Congress to pass legislation strengthening and expanding OSHA’s authority.

Biden also issued a separate executive order on Thursday that sets up a pandemic testing board that will work to coordinate federal testing efforts. The board will look at any issues such as major testing shortages and how to boost testing for at-risk settings such as factories or long-term care facilities.