A New Agenda
For Biden Administration and Congress, Pandemic Puts OEHS Issues in Spotlight
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Almost one year ago on March 13, 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States was declared a national emergency. The pandemic has changed everything about how we live and work. Essential workers with jobs in grocery stores, on farms and in meatpacking plants, in public transit, and elsewhere face a new threat: high risk of occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers has helped “PPE” become a household word. Public awareness of issues related to occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) is on the rise, and the pandemic brings worker health and safety issues into sharp focus.

But COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing in the spotlight during the past year: the 2020 U.S. elections saw record voter turnout, and the world watched to learn the outcome. Now, with Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats having narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, the potential exists for significant changes related to OEHS issues, if the pandemic can be brought under control.
One week before Biden’s inauguration, The Synergist sat down with Mark Ames, AIHA’s director of Government Relations, to discuss changes the new administration might bring, what’s in store for AIHA’s government relations department, and the outlook for OEHS issues in Congress and other legislative bodies. We followed up later in January.
The following is an edited transcript of The Synergist’s conversations with Ames.
THE SYNERGIST: In early January, Biden announced Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as his pick to serve as Secretary of Labor. Are you able to provide any information about what we can expect from the Department of Labor should he be confirmed?
MARK AMES: Addressing COVID-19 is at the top of the list. One of the first things President Biden did after being sworn in was issue an executive order on protecting worker health and safety that required the Department of Labor to consider whether an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to protect workers from occupational exposure to COVID-19 is needed. Earlier, AIHA leaders met with members of the Biden-Harris transition team about this. We expect the department to issue an ETS in the near future, in part because President Biden has publicly indicated his support for an emergency temporary standard. We can also expect an increase in enforcement activities, and from Congress we can expect an increase in funding for worker health and safety and OEHS-related programs and agencies.
TS: How do you foresee the response to the pandemic changing with the new administration?
MA: This is something that’s evolving. One of the big focus areas is communication and outreach. There are currently a lot of challenges with reaching targeted audiences. Right now, the vaccines are being deployed in phases to certain populations of high-risk individuals such as essential workers, including OEHS professionals. But there’s a competing school of thought that says, “Actually, we should get the vaccine out as fast as possible to as many people as possible. Forget about the phases—let’s just make sure that the maximum number of people get dose one and then dose two.” With the virus mutations, there’s a real race with SARS-CoV-2. We don’t have any indication that the Biden administration will abandon or alter the phased approach, but if we continue to see bottlenecks, and if there is this continued struggle to reach these groups, then you might see an opening up or a loosening of some of the definitions so that more people can get the vaccine faster.
I’ve received several phone calls and emails from AIHA members who are confused because each state and county is handling COVID-19 vaccination a bit differently. Common questions include: How do I sign up for the vaccine? Which categories do I fall into? Am I in phase 1a, 1b, or 1c?
Imagine that you’re an OEHS consultant and you’re looking at an online form that says “check the industry you work in.” Maybe you don’t feel like you fit into one of those categories cleanly. What do you do? You don’t want to click the wrong box, wait in line, go to get your vaccine, and be told, “Oh, no, you did this wrong. You can’t get the vaccine today.” Some of our members work in healthcare settings and have already received a vaccine. I know others who will be going to various work sites and fear being exposed to the virus. They’re thinking, “I want to get the vaccine. I feel that I’m an essential worker, but I don’t fit clearly into one of the definitions on the government’s vaccine sign-up forms. What do I do?”
This type of feedback about problems our members are facing is so important. Governments want to get vaccines to targeted populations, and we represent some of those groups. AIHA members also have the expertise to protect workers, their families, and communities. Communicating the value of OEHS professionals and conveying the problems our members are confronting to governments are among the top issues we’re focused on right now.
TS: This year, there will be new people at all levels of government to develop relationships with. Are you able to share how this happens? How do you build relationships with policymakers and others to work toward protecting worker health?
MA: Communication, outreach, and awareness are among the highest priorities for AIHA. We want people in government and everywhere, really, to understand the critically important roles that OEHS professionals play in protecting workers, their families, and their communities. We encourage our local sections to conduct outreach to their government officials at all levels—in legislatures; in local, state, and federal government; in agencies or city councils. We want policymakers to understand the worker health and safety problems that are present in the communities and states where our members are and how we can work together to solve those problems. We do this several ways. One, we invite policymakers to attend local section events—this is being done virtually now—and some have organized virtual Hill days where members meet with legislators or other policymakers through Zoom or a similar platform. Of course, there’s also email and other traditional modes of communication. We also check in with policymakers with whom we have established relationships. And when policymakers introduce legislation that’s of interest to AIHA, we reach out to them.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are a lot of policymakers—99 state legislatures, Congress, and the federal government, plus the regulatory activities of local, state, and federal governments—so there’s a lot of ground to cover. Our approach involves a combination of reaching out to policymakers, encouraging new or strengthened relationships, and responding as actions occur. We communicate our priorities to the policymakers proactively, but we’re also responsive to the policymakers. We make sure they understand that AIHA is a resource and are aware of the particular expertise we have to help improve public policy so that it addresses the problems it seeks to solve.
Key to our outreach is the new public policy agenda and government relations strategic plan that AIHA is developing, which will include an advocate training program. One of the things that AIHA members have found is that the pandemic has put the OEHS profession in the spotlight like never before, and they want to capitalize on this. They want to conduct outreach with their officials and talk about worker health and safety issues, but don’t always know how. One of the ways AIHA is meeting this need is by developing a sophisticated advocate training program. Our goal with the program is to help AIHA members understand the policymaking process from all angles and help them deliver more effective messages that resonate on a deeper level with policymakers.
TS: What are the priorities of AIHA’s Government Relations department this year? What can you share about upcoming projects and efforts?
MA: Our priorities for this year and the foreseeable future include COVID-19; natural disaster preparedness, response, and recovery; increasing the number of OEHS professionals in the U.S., also known as "filling the pipeline"; increasing the knowledge, skills, and competencies of OEHS professionals; increasing public awareness of the valuable roles OEHS professionals play; professional title protection; and increasing or strengthening protections for worker health and safety.
TS: In a normal year, the visibility of workplace health and safety issues is pretty low compared with other issues that Congress and others are working on. Has the COVID-19 pandemic caused this to change? If so, might we see greater emphasis on the kinds of issues AIHA members are working on going forward?
MA: Worker health and safety are always important issues, but they come in different guises. This time, it’s explicit: OEHS is clearly on the top of the agenda, and I expect that to continue. Unfortunately, I think the pandemic is going to stay around for a lot longer than people may realize or would like, which means that OEHS professionals and the issues they work on are going to remain in the spotlight for a long while to come. That’s going to enable AIHA and our members to also talk about the other OEHS hazards that workers confront. The pandemic is what we’re focusing a lot of our attention on, but there are a lot of other OEHS hazards that workers face every single day that present the risk of occupational injury, illness, and death. We definitely don’t want to neglect those.
TS: Any closing thoughts?
MA: We are at an important point in our continued evolution with the development of a new public policy agenda and strategic plan for government relations, as well as the advocate training modules we’re producing. These things will work synergistically with each other and significantly improve the effectiveness of AIHA’s government relations efforts. Thanks to our energetic, dedicated volunteers, our future truly is hopeful and bright.
MARK AMES, MA, is AIHA’s director of Government Relations.
KAY BECHTOLD is managing editor of The Synergist.
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Subscribe to 5 on the Frontline, AIHA's Podcast
5 on the Frontline, a podcast with Mark Ames, AIHA’s director of Government Relations, features interviews with experts and prominent OEHS leaders about current and future policy actions that affect the lives of workers and their communities. Recent guests include Fred Boelter of Boelter Risk Sciences and Engineering LLC, who discussed risk management and decision-making in communications with workers about COVID-19 exposure; Jill Asch of Hillmann Consulting LLC, who discussed essential workers and vaccine distribution; and former OSHA Administrator David Michaels, who talked about implementing an OSHA emergency standard to help further protect workers during the COVID-19 crisis.
Each episode of 5 on the Frontline is approximately five minutes in length, and a variety of options for subscribing to the video podcast are available via AIHA’s website. All episodes are also collected in a YouTube playlist.
Get Involved in AIHA Government Relations
Visit the Government Relations and Advocacy page on AIHA’s website to find AIHA’s Public Policy Agenda, the latest updates on advocacy efforts around the United States, and resources you need to take action with local, state, and federal government representatives on the worker health and safety issues you care about. You might also be interested in joining AIHA’s Government Relations Committee, which works to implement the current public policy agenda and propose new goals and activities; develop model language for legislation and regulations at the federal, state, and local levels; and organize and mobilize AIHA members to achieve the association’s objectives through government relations.
For more information about how you can make a difference, email AIHA’s director of Government Relations, Mark Ames.