The federal government issued new guidance for employers on Friday that is aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces even as the Biden administration considers temporary labor regulations and more aggressive enforcement related to COVID-19.

However, the guidance is not currently enforceable, which one of Maine’s largest labor rights groups said needs to happen to protect workers.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration outlined steps employers should take to reduce spread of the virus about a week after directed to do so by a presidential executive order.

“The president called on the Labor Department to take swift action to identify and prevent COVID-19 transmission and exposure,” M. Patricia Smith, senior counselor to the secretary of labor, said during a conference call Friday.

“It is morally and economically imperative that we ensure the health and safety of our workers,” she said.

The Trump administration was criticized by labor advocates, Democrats and others for failing to adequately protect workers from COVID-19 infection on the job, and for treating employers who violated safety rules too leniently.

The new guidelines are a positive development, but are not legally binding regulations that could better protect workplaces, said Andy O’Brien, communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. “We are still calling on OSHA to implement an enforceable COVID-19 standard because we believe this is the most effective way to protect the health of employees in the workplace.”

The new guidance recommends that employers conduct a hazard assessment, identify control measures to limit virus spread and adopt policies that don’t punish employees for absence, thereby encouraging potentially infected workers to stay home. It also recommends that employers ensure virus policies are communicated to English and non-English speaking workers, and protect workers from retaliation if they raise coronavirus-related concerns.

Key elements to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing, wearing face coverings and using personal protective equipment, also are included in the guidance.

The guidance is not a regulation and it carries no new legal obligations, the agency said. However, Biden’s executive order directs OSHA to consider by March 15 whether new, temporary legal standards around COVID-19 should be enacted. It also ordered the agency to review COVID-19 enforcement actions and launch a national enforcement effort related to violations that put the largest number of workers at risk or break anti-retaliation principles.

The health and safety administration has a lot of work to do to reestablish trust that it is responsible for the safety of workers, Jim Frederick, principal deputy assistant secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, said on the call Friday.

“This guidance is one step in our process for OSHA to address COVID-19 hazards in workplaces, and ensure employers and workers have the tools and controls necessary to mitigate risk of exposure to COVID-19,” Frederick said. “We are moving as quickly as possible, working with the entire staff of the agency to assess where we are currently and how we move forward.

“The guidance issued today is the first step in the process but certainly not the last step in the process.”

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