January 28, 2021

Executive Orders Address COVID-19 Control Measures in the Workplace

Several executive orders signed by President Joe Biden during his first week in office address the health, safety, and well-being of American workers. Two executive orders in particular focus on protecting the general and federal workforces from COVID-19.

The Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety describes the new administration’s policy to protect workers from COVID-19 and states that the federal government “must take swift action to reduce the risk that workers may contract COVID-19 in the workplace.” The executive order calls on the Secretary of Labor to issue revised guidance to employers on workplace safety during the pandemic; determine the necessity of emergency temporary standards on COVID-19; review OSHA’s enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 and identify any changes that could better protect workers; and focus OSHA enforcement efforts on violations that put the largest number of workers at risk for COVID-19. If emergency temporary standards are found to be necessary, the order directs the standards to be issued by March 15, 2021. The executive order also requests that the Department of Labor conduct a multilingual outreach campaign to inform workers of their rights, and directs the Labor Secretary to coordinate and consult with states and other government entities to protect other categories of workers during the pandemic—even those not covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing states the Biden Administration’s intent to require mask-wearing, physical distancing, and other COVID-19 precautions recommended by CDC among all federal employees, federal contractors, and other individuals in federal buildings and on federal land. The order directs all federal departments and agencies to comply with all CDC guidelines related to COVID-19 and states that they must consult with all other parties that interact with the federal government to implement this action. Exceptions to the enforcement of certain CDC-recommended COVID-19 safety precautions are permitted, but agencies must implement appropriate alternatives. Federal agencies are directed to provide masks for all individuals in federal buildings, and the Health Secretary must work with the COVID-19 Response Coordinator and other agency heads to promote mask-wearing and other public health measures nationwide.

Other new executive orders are also relevant to occupational health. The Executive Order on Establishing the COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board and Ensuring a Sustainable Public Health Workforce for COVID-19 and Other Biological Threats calls for the creation of a national COVID-19 testing program to carry out national contact tracing and vaccination efforts, prioritizing healthcare workers and other essential workers. And the Executive Order on a Sustainable Public Health Supply Chain directs federal departments and agencies to increase the supply and distribution of pandemic response supplies, including personal protective equipment. Two additional executive orders concern the transportation industry and education environments.

The full text of all executive orders and other presidential actions is available from the White House briefing room webpage.