What could have been
There were early signs that the agency wouldn’t be heavy-handed about COVID-19 safety concerns, Brudney said.
The agency could have issued Emergency Temporary Standards, rules it can put in place during pandemics that address specific short-term concerns. These rules could have required employers to take infection-control measures to protect workers, including mask wearing, providing proper PPE, and screening for COVID-19 symptoms. “That’s what the agency is supposed to do. They’re supposed to respond to an emergency with emergency measures,” Brudney said.
But despiteand a , Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia has declined to do so, saying that the agency would instead rely on its regular general duty clause, which is always in place to keep workplaces free from hazards that “cause death or serious physical harm.” The agency invoked the general duty clause for COVID-19–related violations for the first time in September to levy modest fines.
In response to a request for an interview, a Department of Labor spokesperson said that preexisting OSHA requirements apply to workers during the pandemic, including providing PPE for workers and assessing sanitation and cleanliness standards. The agency has issued specific guidance to companies on pandemic preparedness, she said, and that it responds to all complaints. Additionally, she cited whistleblower laws that make it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for making safety and health complaints.
The federal OSHA office received 10,868 COVID-related complaints from Feb. 1 through Oct. 20, citing issues ranging from failure to provide proper PPE to not informing workers about exposures. As of Oct. 22, a total of 2,349 of the complaints involved healthcare workers. This count doesn’t include the untold number of “informal” complaints handled by state OSHA offices.
In a recent JAMA, two former government officials agreed that “the federal government has not fully utilized OSHA’s public safety authority” and called the issuing of an Emergency Temporary Standard that would require employers to develop and implement infection control plans “the most important action the federal government could take” to protect workers.
“Employers are more likely to implement these controls if they are mandated by a government agency that has adequate enforcement tools to ensure compliance,” wrote former Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels, PhD, MPH, now at the Milken Institute School of Public Health of the George Washington University, Washington, and Gregory Wagner, MD, a former senior adviser at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, now at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston.
They cited the success of a standard that OSHA issued in 1991 in response to the/AIDS crisis. “The bloodborne pathogens standard has contributed to a substantial decline in health care worker risk for bloodborne diseases like HIV and and C,” they wrote. In a for the Century Foundation, the pair offered recommendations to the federal government for controlling the spread of the disease by ramping up OSHA’s role.
OSHA did issue a response plan that requires employers to report in regard to employees who experienced workplace exposures to SARS-CoV-2 and who were hospitalized with COVID-19 or died of the disease within certain time frames, but recent changes to these rules make experts question whether companies are in fact required to report hospitalizations.
In its second revision of guidelines, added to itson Sept. 30, the agency said that, in order to be reportable, “an in-patient hospitalization due to COVID-19 must occur within 24 hours of an exposure to SARS-CoV-2 at work” and that the employer must report the hospitalization within 24 hours of learning both that the employee has been hospitalized and that the reason for the hospitalization was a work-related case of COVID-19. Previously, the 24-hour hospitalization window started at the time of diagnosis of the disease, rather than the work-related exposure.
The agency subsequently dropped the first citation it had issued for a COVID-related violation, even though the company, a nursing home, had already agreed to pay $3,904 for reporting employee hospitalizations late.
“It’s a step backwards from an important workplace and public health function that OSHA should be doing,” said Wagner, coauthor of the JAMA opinion piece.
Even without issuing Emergency Temporary Standards, critics say OSHA could have acted much earlier. OSHA issued its first COVID-related federal citation, the one against the nursing home that was dropped, in May for events that occurred in mid-April. The second COVID-related federal citation came in July.
The agency could also charge much more substantial fines for the citations it has issued. If a medical facility was cited for a PPE violation, such as the Minnesota hospital where workers were told to restaple the elastic bands on N95s, the agency could have cited the hospital for one violation per employee. Such fines based on multiple violations could add up to the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.
“It would send a signal to the highest-risk employers that these are violations that need to be addressed immediately,” Brudney said.
Many of the 22 state OSHA offices appear to be more responsive to COVID-related complaints than the federal agency, creating a system in which health care workers have substantially different rights from one state to the next. The governor of California, for example, recently authorized California’s OSHA division to consider COVID-19 an imminent hazard, to prohibit workers from entering areas where the hazard exists, and to require employers to disclose exposures. The state also recently issued large fines for COVID safety issues: $222,075 to frozen food manufacturer Overhill Farms and $214,080 to employment agency Jobsource North America.
Elsewhere, state laws such as New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act give workers the right to refuse to work in unsafe situations, Brudney said. “A lot more action is going on at the state level because so little is being done at the federal level,” he said. “Some of it is governors committed to protecting essential workers and their families.”