Safety on the job has been one of the longest and hardest fought battles of the American worker. In 1970, Congress took an enormous leap towards making safety on the job a priority for all Americans with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This legislation created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as part of the Department of Labor (DOL).
The OSHA website clearly states the administration’s mission statement:
With the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.
So why, as we come to the end of the eleventh month of a pandemic that has ravaged the worlds citizens and economies, did we hear next to nothing from the previous administration, whose mission it was to directly and solely protect workers during this unprecedented time?
For the last four years, we have seen a systematic dismantling of protections for workers – from their ability to form a union, to protection of their wages to their ability to stay safe and healthy on the job.
Some have rightfully argued OSHA was not only missing in action for the majority of the pandemic to date, but they have been derelict in their core mission: “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards.”
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19, a list that includes first responders, nurses, doctors, grocery store clerks, teachers and meat processors. In some cases, these deaths could potentially have been avoided by quick action and standards from OSHA.
This makes President Biden’s choice of James Frederick to be acting administrator of OSHA and the Department of Labor Deputy Assistant Secretary so important. Frederick spent 25 years as the assistant director and principal investigator for the United Steel Workers’ health, safety and environment department. He has also worked with the NIOSH board of scientific counselors, the ANSI Z10 Standard Committee and the OSHA Metal Working Fluids Standard Advisory Committee.
With the nomination of James Frederick, we again see President Biden preferring to put people in charge who have a strong understanding of the job he is asking them to do for the American people. OSHA will have its work cut out for it. Under Trump, the agency reduced its reliance on investigators, taking a stand-offish approach to workers and more specifically employers.
“There is no stronger advocate for worker safety in this country than Jim Frederick,” said United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway. “He brings to OSHA not just a deep commitment to safer workplaces for all Americans, but the expertise and experience to get the job done right.” – USW, Press Release 1/20/21
Frederick is replacing acting administrator, Loran Sweatt, who had been nominated by Trump in 2017 but was never confirmed. Under Sweatt’s lack of leadership, OSHA was run in a hands-off approach. When the pandemic came to the U.S. and brought its economy to a halt, throwing millions of people out of work, we heard nothing from OSHA. Trump and his administration refused to accept the impacts that the American worker, both employed and unemployed, was experiencing.
Trump prioritized the meat packing as a priority for the economy but not getting the spread of the disease under control. Because of this, according to a ProPublica investigative report, more than 50,000 meatpacking workers have been infected and at least 250 have died.
These are the failures that lead the Biden administration to issues guidelines for employers within their first week in office. OSHA was called to release standards and regulations by early February.
“Stopping the spread and protecting workers from COVID-19 is without question the only way to get the economy and our lives back to where we all want to be,” Frederick said. “The biggest takeaway from the updated guidance is that implementing a COVID-19 prevention program is the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus. Employers should implement COVID-19 protection programs tailored to their workplace.” – USA Today 1/31/21
To those ends, a Congressional Subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis has opened an investigation specifically into the meat-packing industry and their response to the pandemic and the safety of their workers. The subcommittee cited reports from ProPublica and other news outlets on meat-packing companies handling of the pandemic which has killed hundreds of its workers to date.
The subcommittee’s inquiry will also scrutinize the federal government’s shortcomings in protecting meatpacking workers. “Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” according to the subcommittee’s letter to OSHA. – ProPublica 2/4/21
The subcommittee, chaired by Representative James Clyburn, (D-SC), stated, “Under the Trump Administration, OSHA failed to bring meaningful enforcement actions against meatpacking companies that violated existing worker safety standards during the pandemic.”
To say that OSHA and the DOL have a mountain of work to do in the coming weeks, months, and years is an understatement. They must first address the pandemic, the response and how it impacts and protects workers which will allow them to return to work in as safe an environment as possible.
Jim Frederick, like acting Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, has been prepared for these challenges throughout his entire adult life and the workers and economy of this country are relying on them.