“Federal workers and the American people deserve better,” said a watchdog organization.
On Wednesday, a group of senators called on the Labor Department inspector general to review the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s actions during the novel coronavirus pandemic following criticism the agency is not doing enough to protect workers.
Former officials and lawmakers have called on OSHA to have a more active role during the pandemic and issue an emergency temporary standard to protect frontline workers from the virus. The AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit against OSHA earlier this month to compel the agency to create such a standard. The senators asked IG Scott Dahl for an expeditious, open audit of the agency’s actions and decisions during the coronavirus outbreak, during which thousands of employees have filed workplace safety complaints.
In their letter, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; Robert Casey, D-Pa.; and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., cited reports that since President Trump declared a national emergency for the pandemic on March 13, the number of OSHA citations dropped about 70%. They also noted the agency’s inspection rate “dropped dramatically” and “an OSHA spokesperson reported the agency has not issued a single citation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
They acknowledged that OSHA revised its enforcement policies on May 19 saying it would increase in-person inspections at all workplaces and enforce the recordkeeping requirements for employers to track coronavirus cases among employees. However, “while we are hopeful that these changes, which went into effect on May 26, 2020, will lead to increased coronavirus-related inspections and enforcement activity, we believe it is critical to audit OSHA’s efforts to date, and what impact the updated guidance may have,” the senators said.
Others have raised concerns about OSHA’s role during the pandemic.
The National Employment Law Project published a report April 28 finding that during the pandemic OSHA has maintained the lowest number of inspectors since 1975. “The agency tasked with protecting workers in the most dangerous jobs...has been seriously weakened by this administration,” wrote Deborah Berkowitz, NELP Worker Health and Safety Program director. “It is no surprise, then, that during the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA has completely abdicated its responsibility to ensure that employers keep workers safe on the job.”
Derek Martin, spokesperson for the watchdog Accountable.US, also said OSHA is doing too little. “The Department of Labor’s job is straightforward: keep workers safe,” he told Government Executive on Wednesday. “Instead of rising to the challenge, Secretary [Eugene] Scalia has thrown up his arms and done next to nothing. Federal workers and the American people deserve better.”
The BlueGreen Alliance, a national partnership of labor unions and environmental groups, on Thursday launched an online tool to help American workers understand their rights. “OSHA is not doing its job to create enforceable rules that make sure employers are doing their part to keep workers safe on the job, so we’re taking action to get workers the information they need,” BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Jason Walsh said. “This is an easy-to-use tool that informs workers about the steps their employer should take to keep them safe on the job during COVID-19 and gives them the opportunity to anonymously report their conditions.”
On April 15, the Labor Department IG released its pandemic oversight plan that spans now to about September 30, 2021. Some potential oversight areas involving OSHA include: interim guidance for employers on coronavirus preparations; guidance given to regional and area offices on health and safety compliance measures; efforts to protect frontline workers; fabricated certifications; attempted bribery of OSHA officials; number and type of inspections; and plans for future pandemics.
“The [Office of Inspector General] has already announced reviews involving OSHA’s guidance to workplaces for preventing exposure to COVID-19, as well as a review of OSHA’s actions taken to address COVID-19 related whistleblower complaints,” said a Labor IG spokesperson, when asked for comment on the senators’ letter. “As is our practice, we will consider input from Congress, the department and other stakeholders, as appropriate.”
An OSHA spokesperson said the letter "paints a grossly inaccurate picture of the unprecedented response by OSHA and the federal government." The spokesperson also reaffirmed the agency's commitment to protecting workers.
Following the AFL-CIO lawsuit, a Labor Department spokesperson told Government Executive that “the department is committed to protecting American workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end” and “ is confident it will prevail in this counterproductive lawsuit.”
The pending IG investigations come as thousands of workers have filed OSHA complaints during recent months, as ProPublica reported in April. Specifically, at federal agencies complaints have been filed on behalf of U.S. Postal Service, Federal Bureau of Prisons and Defense Department employees. A review by Accountable.US found that as of May 26, OSHA had inspected at least 16 facilities run by federal agencies for coronavirus-related issues and at least 15 inspections were ongoing.
The Trump administration “seem[s] to be taking a 'less is more' approach to workplace inspections,” said Accountable.US’ Martin, when asked how the watchdog organization views the number of inspections OSHA is undertaking. “But make no mistake: the fewer inspections they choose to conduct during this pandemic, the greater the risk of exposure for workers and everyone they come in contact with.”
This article has been updated with a comment from an OSHA spokesperson.