When the Trump Administration’s OSHA declined repeatedly to issue a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard and otherwise favored issuing guidance over citations, the agency faced a series of lawsuits and legal challenges from worker advocacy groups and national unions. OSHA prevailed in those actions, retaining its primacy and exclusive authority to make workplace safety enforcement decisions. But in the wake of those failed legal challenges, pro-labor advocates and Democratic politicians and policymakers have begun a serious push to establish a private right of action for employees and their representatives under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
For example, in July of 2020, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR), a left-leaning think tank focused on advancing policies to address health and well-being of workers and others, issued a report calling on Congress to legislate a private right of action for employees about workers safety conditions. The purpose of CPR’s policy proposal is explained this way:
OSHA has failed not only to protect workers from existing hazards – ranging from unsecured trenches to infectious diseases like COVID-19 – but has also taken minimal action to tackle emerging risks, such as those associated with climate change, the reshoring of manufacturing jobs, increased automation, and the expansion of artificial intelligence in the workplace. . . . [I]t is time to address the law’s and agency’s shortcomings and chart a course of action to revolutionize worker health and safety for the next 50 years.
Fixing the current system requires an updated and vastly improved labor law that empowers workers to speak up about health and safety hazards, rather than risk their lives out of fear of losing employment and pay. It also requires that workers be empowered to fight back when government agencies fail to enforce safety and health requirements. Our vision is to guarantee all workers a private right of action to enforce violations of the OSH Act, coupled with incentives for speaking up and strong whistleblower protections to ensure workers can and will utilize their new authority.