- In a move heralded as a win for worker safety, President-elect Joe Biden added a prominent workplace health expert to his Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.
- David Michaels is an epidemiologist and professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health in Washington, D.C. He served as assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health from 2009 to January 2017, the longest serving administrator in OSHA’s history. Much of his research focuses on protecting the integrity of the science underpinning public health, safety and environmental protections, according to the announcement. During his tenure, OSHA tightened exposure standards for silica and beryllium and issued new recordkeeping rules, according to his employer biography.
- The appointment comes after the nonprofit National Safety Council urged Biden to include a workplace safety expert on the task force, saying that having a workplace safety voice at the table alongside medical and health professionals is critical to combating the coronavirus crisis.
In calling on Biden's team to include a workplace safety professional, the NSC argued that the business community has not had a national pandemic roadmap, and said that "employers have struggled because of it." Analysis of states’ actions to combat COVID-19 shows that only nine states have released comprehensive guidelines during the pandemic to protect employees, the council added.
At least four states — Virginia, Michigan, California and Oregon — have enacted emergency workplace standards in response to the pandemic, including protocols for screening employees and visitors, physical distancing measures and the use of masks and face shields.
Safety advocates also attempted to force OSHA to issue temporary emergency workplace standards, with little success. A federal appeals court in June declined to require that the agency act. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business advocacy organization, argued against such a standard, saying the agency "reasonably decided that coupling OSHA's existing safety standards with flexible, industry-specific guidance informed by evolving scientific understanding" was enough to protect workers.
Later, when Biden announced his original task force, some health experts expressed concern that it did not include an appointee specifically dedicated to the needs of COVID-19 safety in the workplace. "It’s not part of our culture to think about work and health in this country. We don’t think about occupation as one of the social determinants of health," said Jack Dennerlein, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who studies occupational health and safety in construction, and who noted a lack of an occupational expert on Biden’s initial COVID-19 task force. "But if he really wants to get the economy running again, you’ve got to think about controlling it in the workplace so that workers can show up."
The NSC praised the addition of Michaels to the team, saying that he brings a deep understanding of the safety challenges facing both workers and their employers.
"We have the utmost confidence in his expertise in the midst of an unparalleled safety crisis," read a statement.
Construction Dive Reporter Joe Bousquin contributed to this report.