How Biden’s administration is shifting the EHS landscape

A snapshot of what’s changing in EHS policies under Biden’s administration – and what’s still to come.

Taylor Murphy

by Taylor Murphy

Biden’s administration is surprising few – if any – people, taking many US policies in a new direction, especially those regarding environmental, health, and safety (EHS). Having already made comprehensive changes within the first few months of his inauguration, the new president has drawn several lines in the proverbial sand of standards. And many of these policy changes could reshape what it means to be compliant with US regulations. From re-entry into the Paris Agreement and revisions in chemical management protocol to reinforcing the role of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), here’s a look at what the latest White House resident is up to in EHS.

Environmental goals with a global stance

Many are aware that Biden’s administration reversed the previous decision to leave the Paris Agreement, rejoining within the first 100 days of presidency. But not as many people are clear on what happens next. Since re-entry, the US established its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which determines the scope of the country’s goals over the next decade. A big part of those objectives is to reduce carbon emissions in the US by 50-52 percent by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels) and to reach net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. The White House has not unveiled specific 2030 targets for various sectors yet.

However, there is one effort moving forward full force. Namely, the National Climate Task Force. Created by Biden to chart progress on the NDC and other administrative goals, the task force is developing a new national climate strategy to be put into place late 2021. This plan is likely to include, among others, regulations to enact stricter emissions limits on vehicles, power plants, and industries – as well as incentives to move towards electric cars and renewable energy.

Biden’s administration continues to push for chemical review

When it comes to chemical management, there was an increase in regulations and enforcement under the previous administration. While Biden’s administration has changed the rules, the pressure to improve chemical management approaches remains. Biden, however, does have a strong environmental justice focus that we have not seen from past administrations.

Among recent changes to chemical management, on 29 March 2021, EPA rejected the previous administration’s review process in the New Chemicals Program. Previously, EPA would issue the new chemical determination of “not likely to present an unreasonable risk” for qualifying substances based on proposed Significant New Use Rules. Now, there will be a more comprehensive review of all the usage conditions for the chemical and stricter regulations on them, where appropriate. This broader scope means, more chemicals and uses are likely to be regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Following a similar school of thought, EPA will ensure workers who work with chemical substances are protected. Rather than assuming “workers are adequately protected under OSHA’s worker protection standards and updated Safety Data Sheets (SDS),” EPA will identify the absence of worker safeguards as “reasonably foreseen” conditions of use and require protection through TSCA where appropriate. This means that in some cases following OSHA will no longer be enough. In addition to any applicable OSHA requirements, employers could be subject to worker protection obligations from EPA under TSCA. So far, this strategy has not been applied and yet to be seen if successful.

Extended OSHA enforcement & focus under Biden’s administration

Across his policy changes and even personnel picks, we see Biden’s administration placing a stronger focus on worker and community safety than others in the past. In addition to saying he will increase the number of auditors during his presidency, Biden nominated Doug Parker to head of OSHA. Formerly the chief of California’s division of OSHA, Parker has pledged to expand workers’ rights and increase inspections. Additionally, Biden’s pick for Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, has pledged to work alongside OSHA.

The president also pushed OSHA to increase enforcement and accountability. In response to related mitigation, OSHA launched a National Emphasis Program for COVID-19 to focus enforcement efforts on companies and industries with the largest number of workers at serious risk for the virus.

Additionally, following President Biden’s Executive Order, OSHA developed and sent a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard to the Office of Management and Budget for review. On 10 June 2021, OSHA issued a pre-publication notice of its COVID-19 emergency temporary standard (ETS). The ETS will be effective once it is officially published in the federal register. The ETS imposes new requirements on healthcare facilities, including healthcare settings embedded within a non-healthcare facility. This includes, for example, a medical clinic within a manufacturing facility.

Biden’s administration & beyond: Moving forward in EHS management

The Biden administration has made many substantial changes impacting EHS compliance management but they won’t be the last. Rejoining the Paris agreement, the progression of the National Climate Task Force and an increased focus on employee safety are the start of the next era of US regulations, which will only continue to evolve. Looking ahead, keep your company on top of the trends that could impact EHS in the US by looking beyond the adopted legislation to global policies and other movements with a forecaster lookout.

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