OSHA has failed to protect workers from COVID-19, unions say


By Kate Gibson, CBS News

October 9, 2020


Half a century after Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, labor advocates say the agency in charge of enforcing the landmark law is failing to protect American workers during the coronavirus pandemic.


"We lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to health and safety on the job," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said this week in a conference call. "OSHA has been absent."


The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration hasn't investigated most of the thousands of complaints employees have filed this year expressing concern about infection risks in the workplace, according to a report this week from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of U.S. labor unions. Furthermore, OSHA has given what amounts to a slap on the wrist to the few companies it has taken action against, the AFL-CIO contends.


Through October 1, OSHA has opened investigations into only 198 of the more than 9,000 employee complaints it received related to COVID-19, according to the AFL-CIO, which examined OSHA data.


The federal agency "has investigated few complaints and issued fewer citations, and only recently," stated the report, which found that OSHA has opened investigations for just 198 of 9,051 complaints and for 85 of the 1,215 referrals related to COVID through October 1. Of the complaints, more than 2,000 were from health care workers and more than 1,000 were from retail workers, the union said.


More than 212,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, according to John Hopkins University, but there is no precise tally of how many people have contracted the virus at work. That's because there is no national system in place for collecting data on COVID-19 infections in the workplace, and employers aren't required to publicly report the information.


Still, from meat slaughtering plants to nursing homes, medical facilities and warehouses, workplaces have proved to be a major source of COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, media accounts and labor unions.


After coronavirus outbreaks that began with one in March at a long-term care facility in Washington state, it became clear that indoor work sites with poor ventilation and crowded conditions put people at risk, especially in settings where people are known to be infected, like hospitals.


"As we head into hopefully what is not going to be the second wave, it's unclear what lessons we've learned, and it's unclear if workers are going to be protected," said Debbie White, a nurse and union leader in New Jersey.


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