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What to Expect Under the Biden Administration

March 15, 2021
A look at probable and possible policy changes and other actions President Joe Biden may take on COVID-19 and other environment, health and safety issues.

As with any presidential transition, sweeping changes, executive orders and new priorities are expected within the first 100 days of office.

The transition from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden has already seen significant changes in the federal government’s response to COVID-19. Business leaders should also prepare for anticipated impacts of policy changes; new regulations; investment; and enforcement priorities related to environmental, health, safety, sustainability, security and supply chain (EH3S).

Here are four areas where we expect to see the most significant changes in the coming four years:

  • Heightened pressure for climate change response, ranging from risk disclosures to increased infrastructure spending.
  • Responses to ongoing supply chain and business continuity challenges including addressing personal protective equipment (PPE) and essential worker shortages; vaccine distribution security; and production reshoring incentives.
  • Worker mental and physical health impacts because of the pandemic, an aging workforce and changing employment relationships (e.g., remote, virtual and gig economy workforces).
  • Increased environmental, health and safety enforcement activities including publishing occupational health and safety violators, more significant enforcement citations and criminal prosecutions (e.g., corporate executive liability).

Climate Change Response

One of the most aggressive and ambitious agenda items the Biden administration has pledged is to tackle climate change. This included rejoining the Paris Agreement on Day One of his presidency, rolling back a number of Trump’s policies, installing cabinet members and advisors with an eye on the environment, and directing all executive departments and agencies to “immediately review and take appropriate action to address federal regulations and other executive actions … damaging to the environment.”

Given the vocal commitment and flurry of climate related executive orders already, this area is likely to be one of most significant impacts for organizations in the years ahead.

As the administration continues to roll out its priorities, organizations, especially publicly traded companies, will likely need to increase their reporting around climate risks in their security filings. Many expect the Treasury Department, with influence from investors, will try to dissuade banks from financing fossil fuel producers.

It will also be important to monitor discussion around carbon pricing. Given that Democrats control Congress and the White House, a carbon fee is a possible and would put companies that haven’t included carbon pricing into their cost of goods at a disadvantage.

President Biden has made climate promises a lynchpin of his campaign and already his presidency, so business leaders should expect and prepare for additional regulatory changes, a stark contrast from the previous administration.

Supply Chain and Business Continuity Planning

The Biden administration has been clear about its intent to revamp the federal response to COVID-19. In early February, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act. Even before inauguration, Biden appointed three COVID-19 coordinators who will be responsible for the acquisition, supply and industrial base expansion activity to help “reduce the opacity of the market for critical supplies and supply chains by clearly and rapidly communicating with states, health care providers and manufacturers about federal interventions.”

Also, the recently signed Executive Order on a Sustainable Public Health Supply Chain addresses plans to assess the supply chain, stockpiles and government pricing of all materials related to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. The executive order also calls for a Pandemic Supply Chain Resilience Strategy to be delivered to the President within 180 days that will “design, build and sustain a long-term capability in the United States to manufacture supplies for future pandemics and biological threats.” Given this forthcoming report, of which the Secretary of Health and Human Services will play a critical role in its development, significant updates and impacts are expected.

Beyond health care, the Biden administration is conducting a review of the semiconductor materials and rare earth metal supply chains, both of which are critical for a number of products ranging from consumer electronics to automobiles. The review could be an initial step toward incentivizing companies to base these supply chains in the United States or increase the cost of reliance on international suppliers.

We recommended organizations start preparing by:

  • Learning whether your business is considered critical infrastructure.
  • Contacting suppliers to understand their ability to meet your contracts.
  • Determining future needs for PPE and other resources, as this pandemic is not happening within a vacuum; other incidents and scenarios should be considered.
  • Identifying secondary and tertiary providers to ensure continuity mechanisms are in place.
  • Monitoring and assessing the pandemic’s impact on labor and how it may impact your operations.

Worker Mental Health and Well-being

In a recent BSI-EHS Today webinar survey of nearly 250 business executives, more than 79% of respondents indicated the pandemic was having an impact on the mental health and well-being of their workforce.

The sudden changes in how we all live and work has increased occupational stress and will continue as the pandemic drags on. Given the uncertainty around the pandemic, proactive organizations are prioritizing mental health through well-being strategies, programs and initiatives. These organizations are realizing their responsibility and are increasingly considering the overall wellness of their workers as integral to their corporate health and safety programs.

Since the Biden administration has already signaled its concerns with the health and well-being of the workforce, it is likely it will increase funding for further research, awareness and initiatives from government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Occupational, Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH is already leading the way with research and tools for businesses through its Total Worker Health and Healthy Work Design and Well-Being (HWD) programs. In addition, the United States’ re-entry into the World Health Organization may also lead to increased funding for its emerging global occupational health initiative known as the Healthy Workplace model.

Here are some strategies organizations can implement now to help and promote total worker health:

  • Assess the health, safety and mental health of employees. Identify what workplace factors are affecting them via employee participation surveys and 1:1 meetings between managers and their direct reports.
  • Review existing mental health and wellness resources available to employees and determine how they are being used as well as their efficacy.
  • Evaluate current healthy workplace models and frameworks such as NIOSH’s Total Worker Health and management systems standards such as ISO 45001 Occupational Health and Safety, ISO/PAS 45005 General Guidelines for Safe Working During the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the forthcoming TWH voluntary management system standard being developed by ANSI & ASSP for long-term health.
  • Invest in professional development and training on various healthy workplace models and mental health programs to see what may fit best within your organization.

Environmental, Health and Safety Enforcement

On the campaign trail, Biden called for a doubling of the number of OSHA investigators to enforce standards and guidelines, a stark change from the previous administration.

Given that there are fewer OSHA inspectors today than in the past 40 years, organizational and business leaders can expect substantial increases in OSHA inspectors with an emphasis on enforcement of COVID-19 protections. In addition, it is anticipated the administration will also:

  • Pursue more criminal and egregious penalties as well as multiemployer citations
  • Increase OSHA civil penalty amounts based on cost-of-living adjustments
  • Return to more regular reporting or publishing releases of issued citations
  • Encourage the federal OSHA to have greater involvement and oversight of state OSHA, which could lead to more pressure to increase state penalties.

Given the significant changes happening now and likely to occur in the years ahead, it is imperative that businesses have a plan to address these new and emerging changes in order to remain resilient and minimize business disruption.

Xavier Alcaraz is managing principal and national safety practice director at BSI EH3S Consulting Services. He has more than 20 years of professional experience in industrial hygiene, safety and building science disciplines, where he has supported regional and global clients with managing pandemic risk and strategies related to risk assessment, risk mitigation, regulatory compliance, and COVID-19 plan development and implementation.

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