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OSHA Called Upon to Step Up COVID-19 Workplace Safety Rules

Reuters recently released its finding in a report after examining the regulatory response of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to workplace COVID-19 safety practices. It analyzed 106 U.S. workplaces where employees complained of mishandled pandemic safety practices on the heels of the outbreak and reported that regulators either never inspected the facilities or, in some cases, waited months to do so, according to OSHA’s own records.

The Reuters analysis reveals that OSHA failed to inspect 70 workplaces, where at least 4,500 workers were infected by the coronavirus, and 26 died after contracting the virus. As of mid-December, according to Reuters, only 12 of the 106 facilities were penalized in response to workers’ complaints. The complaints came from a wide range of workplaces – from meatpacking plants to factories, e-commerce warehouses, and nursing homes. Workers alleged failures to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing; managers pressuring sick employees to work; and a lack of notification to employees about co-workers’ infections.

OSHA Disputes Reuters’ Analysis

The federal agency’s acting leader, Loren Sweatt, said in a statement that the allegations in the cases Reuters cited do not reflect the totality of OSHA’s efforts to keep workers safe and “unfairly disparage dedicated OSHA inspectors across the country.”

In addition, in a written statement, OSHA said that protecting workers from the pandemic is the agency’s “top priority,” and that it has conducted 1,396 COVID-19 inspections as of mid-December in workplaces with more than 618,000 employees. The agency said it investigates every complaint and has closed out more than 80% of the more than 13,000 COVID-19 complaints it had received through mid-December. That figure does not include the complaints made to state OSHA affiliates.

However, a Reuters review of state and federal OSHA case files on worker complaints, obtained through public records requests, shows those investigations “were often cursory and rarely resulted in inspections. Instead, officials typically emailed employers a complaint summary, as they did with UPS, and asked for a response within a week. If the employer responded, the agency closed out the case.”

President Biden’s Executive Order Calls for Stronger Workplace Rules

In his first official day on the job, President Biden signed an executive order directing federal regulators to issue stronger safety guidance for most at-risk workplaces operating in the midst of the pandemic. The executive order on “Protecting Worker Health and Safety” seeks to reorient worker safety guidelines and enforcement at OSHA.

OSHA is to update COVID safety recommendations for businesses within the next two weeks, review its enforcement efforts, and study whether an emergency temporary standard, which businesses would have to comply with under the threat of penalties, is necessary. The agency must issue the emergency standard by mid-March, if the study finds it’s required.

The executive order also calls for OSHA to launch a “national program to focus the agency’s enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 on violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk or are contrary to anti-retaliation principles” and to coordinate with the Department of Labor on a multilingual outreach campaign to inform workers and their representatives of their rights under applicable law. It’s critical to discuss with your insureds the importance of safety compliance, including COVID-19 workplace practices, to protect their businesses and employees.