Thousands of OSHA investigations already closed during COVID-19 pandemic

Former OSHA employee: 'It's terrifying for workers'


Matt Flener, KMBC

Jul 1, 2020


KANSAS CITY, Mo. Thousands of investigations into working conditions across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic are getting quietly closed by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, after complaints of working conditions by employees and the public.


What's left unexplained is why those investigations are getting closed so quickly, how many on-site inspections OSHA has performed since March, and what penalties employers face if they fail to keep workers safe.


"It's terrifying for workers, because they're really on their own," said Debbie Berkowitz, a worker health and safety program director for the National Employment Law Project and a former chief of staff and policy advisor for OSHA.


The findings come as OSHA has released weekly public information on open and closed investigations the agency has published since April. In mid-April, the agency updated guidelines to offer guidance on how to investigate complaints and inspect workplaces.


"Prior to any inspection related to COVID-19, each area director (AD) should evaluate the risk level of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 at the workplace, and prioritize his or her resources in coordination with his or her regional offices to determine if an on-site inspection is necessary," the guidance suggested.


In Missouri, KMBC 9 Investigates counted 164 complaints and investigations closed by OSHA since March. Twenty-three complaints and investigations in Kansas have been closed. It is unclear why those investigations closed, as there is a lack of detail on OSHA's public information page. To gather more specific information about the status of investigations and members of the public would have to file freedom of information requests with the agency, or search a different portion of the agency's website with a specific investigation number.


An OSHA spokeswoman said she was working on a response to questions from KMBC 9 News when contacted Wednesday.


Berkowitz said under the current administration, the U.S. Department of Labor has failed to perform enough inspections and enforce specific requirements to keep workers safe from COVID-19. She cited a specific complaint from late April for the Tyson Foods Plant in Noel, Missouri. Last week, Tyson announced 371 positive cases at its Noel facility.


The complaint alleges employees could not social distance while waiting for COVID-19 screening, had no access or ability to get water except for costly vending machines, and people throwing up in the drains while continuing to work. But the complaint shows up on the closed investigation list without any explanation as to what the investigation entailed.


"They never inspected. They never followed up, and now there are hundreds and hundreds of workers sick, very sick in Noel, Missouri, and in that Tyson plant. And that could've been prevented had OSHA gone in and done an inspection," she said.


A Tyson spokeswoman released a statement that said the company has cooperated with all OSHA inquiries, but would not confirm if OSHA performed an onsite inspection...


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