Reuters identified many complaints of lax pandemic safety practices to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) which were largely disregarded. SHA is the nation’s workplace safety watchdog, tasked with preventing on-the-job injuries and illnesses. Federal OSHA enforces workplace safety in about half of the states, while OSHA-affiliated state agencies carry out those duties in the rest of the country. State OSHA agencies are overseen by state governors and the federal agency and must, at a minimum, enforce federal workplace safety regulations.
When OSHA agencies receive worker complaints, officials decide whether to conduct inspections that can lead to fines and requirements to address dangerous working conditions. But regulators never inspected nearly two-thirds of the 106 workplaces where Reuters identified outbreaks, according to the OSHA data on worker complaints and agency workplace inspections.
Reuters identified 106 U.S. workplaces where employees complained of slipshod pandemic safety practices around the time of outbreaks - and regulators either never inspected the facilities or, in some cases, waited months to do so, according to the OSHA records. The agency never inspected 70 of those workplaces, where at least 4,500 workers were infected by the coronavirus and 26 died after contracting COVID-19, according to the Reuters analysis.
The 106 cases represent a sample of how OSHA has responded to the public health crisis. Reuters was unable to conduct a comprehensive examination of how the agency responded to safety complaints, infections and deaths because most state and local governments do not track or publicize data on workplace outbreaks.
As of mid-December, just 12 of the 106 facilities have been penalized in response to workers’ complaints. The complaints came from a wide range of workplaces, from meatpacking plants and factories to e-commerce warehouses and nursing homes. Their employees 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.
Current and former OSHA employees told Reuters that the agency never developed an aggressive and focused strategy to respond to the pandemic. An OSHA field employee told Reuters that cases related to the pandemic often get slowed down by multiple layers of approval in regional offices and in Washington. The relatively small number of violations the agency has issued take months to process, the employee said.
“I’m not proud of what we’ve done,” the person said.
Out of 1,396 federal OSHA inspections related to COVID-19, the agency has issued citations from 273 of those cases through mid-December, averaging about $13,000 each. That includes fines for meat-packing giants Smithfield Foods Inc and JBS USA, which have had severe outbreaks. Smithfield received a penalty of $13,494 for a violation at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant, where four workers died and nearly 1,300 workers were infected. JBS’ citation was for $15,615 at its Greeley, Colorado plant, where six died and 292 tested positive. Both companies are appealing the fines. Some of the federal OSHA citations came with no fines at all. The largest penalty ever issued by OSHA was an $81.3 million fine to BP Products North America Inc in 2009, following a 2005 refinery explosion in Texas that killed 15 workers and injured 170 more.
In late September, OSHA weakened its guidelines for when employers must notify the agency about workers who are hospitalized with COVID-19. Previously, employers were required to notify OSHA of all “work-related” hospitalizations of employees with COVID-19. Then the agency changed its guidance to require notification only in cases where an employee is hospitalized “within 24 hours of an exposure” to the coronavirus at work. The guidance gutted the notification requirement for two reasons: Coronavirus symptoms - much less hospitalizations - do not occur within 24 hours of virus exposure, according to public health experts, and the exact moment of infection is impossible to determine. Since the new guidelines were announced, OSHA data shows, the average number of reported hospitalizations since October were 40% less than the average number reported from late March through September. The numbers have remained low despite the uncontrolled spread of the virus through much of the country over the last two months. OSHA acknowledged that employers are unlikely to report COVID-19 hospitalizations under the revised reporting rules. The weakened reporting standards make it that much harder for OSHA to identify dangerous workplaces. By deciding to collect less information, OSHA then has less ability to respond.