COVID Workplace Safety Complaints Went Ignored

The number of complaints filed with OSHA skyrocketed, but just a fraction resulted in inspections.

A new investigative report from the Wall Street Journal details how OSHA frequently struggled with its caseload of complaints from manufacturing workers throughout 2020 and was unequipped to manage them amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Journal, OSHA received 72% more complaints between February 2020 and January 2021 compared to the same period a year earlier, with 57,000 complaints tied to COVID-19. Of those 57,000, less than 6% resulted in inspections.

The report elaborated that OSHA’s wheelhouse typically concerns complaints or incident reports related to lockout/tagout procedures, electric shock hazards and machine guarding — and the agency wasn’t equipped to deal with virus transmission, especially at a pandemic scale. The result was in a lackadaisical approach to policing many complaints.

The Journal wrote that in the early months of the pandemic, OSHA felt it could merely suggest that employees follow CDC guidelines regarding social distancing and wearing PPE, but not enforce those measures. The issues were compounded by variance in health orders between states and local governments.

The report cited examples from interviews, OSHA documents and health department records of warehouse workers, packaging employees and poultry plant workers who complained about a lack of mask-wearing, social distancing or their plant’s lack of response to outbreaks — after which OSHA took little action as infections increased at those locations.

The Journal investigation revealed that worker complaints to OSHA resulted in the agency finding 500 COVID outbreaks — totaling 6,000 infections — for which OSHA handed out $3.5 million in fines for COVID-related violations.

However, the report identified more than 1,000 worker deaths from COVID-19 that were likely linked to facility transmission of the virus and were never investigated by OSHA as of early February 2021. The report added that many such deaths weren’t reported by employers, and one of the agency’s biggest challenges was determining when a COVID death should be deemed work-related.

David Michaels, OSHA’s director during the Obama administration, told the Journal, “The pandemic has exposed OSHA’s great weaknesses. Workers have never been so threatened by a hazard as they have by the coronavirus.”

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