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Did OSHA fail to protect workers from COVID?

The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General has found that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not sufficiently protect workers from COVID-19 during the earlier part of the pandemic.

The OIG report, issued on Oct. 31, found that OSHA:

  • Failed to keep complete information about COVID-19 infection rates at worksites.
  • Did not issue citations to enforce the standard for recording and reporting occupational injuries and illnesses in 15 percent of fatality inspections surveyed.
  • Closed inspections in some instances without a complete review to determine whether the company had mitigated potential COVID-19 health hazards.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA must issue a citation for a violation unless the area director decides otherwise. But in its report, the OIG found that OSHA didn’t have a policy to ensure that area offices issued the required citations or documented a determination not to do so.

The OIG also concluded that OSHA does not know the COVID-19 infection rates at worksites because it does not require employers to report all COVID-19 cases. Some states have had stricter infection reporting requirements. The OIG noted that employers in New Mexico must report all employee cases of COVID-19 to the New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau within 4 hours of being notified, regardless of whether the infection was contracted at work. California employers must report all cases to the local public health agency in the jurisdiction of their worksite.

Recommended Steps

The OIG recommended that OSHA:

  • Provide additional training for compliance safety and health officers to enforce the record-keeping and reporting standards for fatalities.
  • Update agency policy to include a supervisory review of inspection files to ensure they contain adequate support for the reasons regarding decisions on issuing citations before closing inspections.
  • Develop a plan for a future pandemic to collaborate with external agencies on worksite case data and to use this data to maximize rapid response and enforcement actions in worksites.

As part of its analysis, the OIG examined a sample of 66 out of 643 closed inspections conducted between February 1, 2020, and January 31, 2021. Twenty of them were based on complaints about mass COVID-19 positive cases, a lack of personal protective equipment, PPE training, respirator fit testing, routine cleaning, or failure to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing and face coverings.