OSHA Struggles with COVID-19 Enforcement

The agency that handles workplace safety hasn’t done enough to confront COVID-19 offenses, according to a recent investigative report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). COVID-19 is the biggest workplace safety challenge in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), yet the agency has taken only limited action during the pandemic, missing chances to protect essential workers who have died from coronavirus.

OSHA was created in 1970 to “ensure safe and healthy working conditions” in the United States. This federal agency oversees 29 states and provides guidance to the rest. Historically, its rules have applied to worker safety in the context of chemical exposures, electric shocks and falls. However, as COVID-19 is an invisible opponent that was largely unknown at first and could also be contracted outside of work, OSHA’s role was uncertain for a period of time. A small agency staff coupled with initial shortages of masks and confusion over the rules led to situations where workers remained unprotected despite numerous complaints to OSHA.

Indeed, workplace safety complaints surged during the pandemic. OSHA agencies received 57,000 complaints related to COVID-19, and 72 percent more complaints overall from February 2020 through January 2021. The agency scaled back onsite inspections based on limited staff and the pandemic. A lack of onsite OSHA inspections likely contributed to continuing offenses, according to a report from the United States Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General.

More than 1,000 worker deaths have been linked to workplace transmission, according to the WSJ report. At issue is whether OSHA could have done more to protect these workers. The newspaper reviewed inspection and complaints documents and disease outbreak data. Also, worker deaths were catalogued through news reports and obituaries and the WSJ interviewed family members and co-workers of the victims.

The WJS found “more than 500 COVID-19 outbreaks involving some 6,000 infections at workplaces where employees had earlier complained to OSHA of unsafe conditions” and “180 worker deaths from COVID-19 that occurred four weeks or more after complaints to OSHA agencies that the agencies didn’t investigate beyond corresponding with employers.” They believe those numbers “substantially understate” the number of COVID-19 related workplace deaths.

OSHA countered with a statement that they have done thousands of inspections and issued nearly 300 COVID-19 citations. The citations have resulted in $3.5 million of fines. The agency is working on changes to better protect workers, noted the article.

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