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Just as national news networks continue to speculate who will prevail in this year’s presidential election, employers and health and safety experts are hypothesizing what the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration would look like under a Joe Biden administration or four more years under President Donald Trump.
Prior to President Trump taking over from President Barack Obama in January 2017, OSHA had put into place several sweeping recordkeeping reforms and issued a flurry of guidance. Under the Trump administration, those expanded recordkeeping obligations were rolled back, and stipulations were placed on the issuance of guidance in favor of relying on regulations as the basis for enforcement of workplace safety rules.
Under a continued Trump administration, that “heavy deregulation” is likely to continue, as are restrictions on the issuance of new guidance and the required retirement of existing regulatory guidance for each new piece issued, said Eric Conn, Washington-based founding partner of Conn Maciel Carey LLP.
Resistance from OSHA to promulgating an emergency temporary standard on COVID-19 workplace protections is also likely to continue under a second Trump term, said Kate McMahon, Washington-based partner at Conn Maciel in a webinar Oct. 22. Several states, including Virginia and Michigan, have issued their own standards, and Oregon and California are in the process of completing temporary COVID-19 standards for employers.
A Biden administration is likely to make OSHA’s issuance of a coronavirus temporary standard a top priority, she said. Mr. Biden has publicly stated that a COVID-19 temporary emergency standard is needed and that OSHA should double the number of its investigators to enforce existing standards and guidelines.
With a Biden administration, Ms. McMahon also expects to see heavier enforcement by OSHA of COVID-19 recordkeeping and reporting, as well as additional resources for investigating complaints of COVID-19 whistleblower retaliation.
While OSHA has received criticism for a reduction in inspectors — 761 inspectors now cover the country, down from 815 in 2016 — the agency did receive a significant budget increase in 2019 under the Trump administration, Ms. McMahon said.
Under a Biden administration, the number of OSHA inspectors is likely to rise significantly, along with a push for more regulations, said Todd Logsdon, Louisville, Kentucky-based partner at Fisher Phillips LLP.
Mr. Logsdon also said he would expect a return to what he called the agency’s Obama-era “press shaming” strategy.
“I don’t think a lot of employers found that was fair — shaming press releases about the citation before the employer even had a chance to contest, sometimes before they even received citations,” he said.
Employers, who generally like continuity, will also see few regulations or guidance released during a second Trump term unless there is “a good safety case,” he said.
One change many workplace safety stakeholders would welcome is the confirmation of an assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health — a position that has remained vacant for the entirety of the Trump presidency. Although the administration nominated Scott Mugno, a FedEx Corp. safety leader, for the role in 2017, he withdrew his name from consideration in 2019.
“One of the things that we would like to see that hasn’t happened is an administrator appointed to OSHA,” said Pam Walaski, Pittsburgh-based at-large member of the American Society of Safety Professionals’ board of directors and senior program director at Specialty Technical Consultants Inc. “I don’t think that a federal agency of that magnitude should have gone this long without a formal leader in place.”
Despite the lack of a Senate-confirmed OSHA leader, however, Ms. Walaski said the agency has shown an increased interest in the past four years in voluntary consensus standards, which she said is a priority for ASSP. These voluntary standards are created by safety organizations to reflect current best practices and address regulatory gaps, and are meant to supplement OSHA standards, which due to the regulatory process can take years to develop and take effect, according to the ASSP.
Overall, “it matters less about which party happens to be in office or how the leadership composition of Congress happens to be,” said Mark Ames, director of government relations at the Falls Church, Virginia-based American Industrial Hygiene Association. “What matters much more are the relationships that you develop … with the leadership of those entities.”
More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here.