SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Photos of health care workers in Florida wearing trash bags as gowns and masks made from paper towels drove Jude Derisme to do something.
“We were concerned about what was going on with cross-contamination,” said Derisme, the vice president of a union representing health care workers in the Sunshine State. “So, we filed a complaint with OSHA.”
That’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – the federal agency responsible for protecting workers. According to data on OSHA’s website, it received more than 48,000 pandemic-related complaints through Dec. 10.
Yet, only about 2,000 of those complaints have resulted in inspections. OSHA publishes those complaints.
Records show how workers continue to report problems. There’s a grocery in Denver, one complaint says, where management wouldn’t allow employees to physically distance or limit the number of customers inside.
A worker at a veterans’ medical center in Tampa, Florida, reported staff didn’t have enough personal protective equipment. Plus, an employee at a sausage company in Kansas City, Missouri, reported people were coming to work sick.
The lack of action at OSHA isn’t confined to the pandemic. According to the agency’s data, through November of this year, it conducted about 55% as many inspections – of all kinds – compared to the same 11-month span in 2019.
“OSHA is the federal agency charged with protecting workers, and it's just been a dismal failure,” said Roger Kerson, the communications director at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy group trying to prevent workplace injuries.
“Workers are sick,” Kerson said. “They're dying. They're broke because they're sick.”
There’s also evidence that workplace outbreaks of the coronavirus create community spread. Research published in November in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that complaints to OSHA were early warning signs.
“What we saw was throughout the country that the OSHA complaints were highly correlated, preceded, that they were a predictor of deaths that were going to occur a couple of weeks later,” said Peg Seminario, the former health and safety director at the AFL-CIO and one of the paper’s co-authors,
“We're not going to break the chain of this pandemic until we deal with the exposures in the workplace,” she added.
An OSHA spokesperson declined KSTU’s request to interview the agency’s director or other staff. A statement from the spokesperson says, in part, that OSHA “utilizes existing safety and health standards” to determine when there’s a violation placing workers in danger.
The statement said every complaint is investigated and “inspections alone have helped to ensure more than 618,000 workers are protected from COVID-19.” The spokesperson also pointed out that, by law, OSHA has six months to complete an investigation.
As of mid-December, OSHA reported pandemic-related citations for 263 employers. Fines totaled about $3.5 million.
That’s modest by the standards of big business. In one example in Greeley, Colorado, six workers died after contracting the coronavirus at a JBS meatpacking plant. OSHA found inadequate protections for workers and the plant didn’t properly log injuries. OSHA fined JBS $15,615.
“The message to employers,” Kerson said, “'Well, this isn’t going to cost very much. So, I'm not going to bother going through anything that we'd have to go through to, to reduce this risk.’”
OSHA has opted not to create workplace standards specifically for the pandemic. Twenty-two states and territories operate their own occupational safety and health offices with federal oversight.
At least one state – Utah – has pointed to the lack of federal guidance as a reason not to pursue unsafe workplaces more aggressively.
“Rules and regulations on the state and federal level regarding COVID, there aren’t any yet in place for us to follow,” Eric Olsen, the spokesman for the Utah Labor Commission, told KSTU in November.
States with their own OSHA offices have the option of creating stricter occupational health standards than the federal government requires. According to the National Employment Law Project, 14 states have adopted more stringent standards.
Kerson is among those who would like OSHA to mandate stricter pandemic protocols nationwide, including forcing employers to have specific plans for when masks are required.
“Let's say you're a trucking company,” Kerson said. “The guy doesn't have to wear a mask while he's in the truck cab by himself, but then you might say, ‘Well, but when they get to the terminal and others are around, then you should have the mask on.’”
No COVID-19 standards have been issued for workplaces in Florida. When Derisme tried to file a complaint on behalf of his union members, someone from the OSHA office returned his call.
The response, left in a voicemail, wasn’t what Derisme was expecting.
“Good afternoon,” the message left for Derisme began. “This is the duty officer from the OSHA office in Fort Lauderdale. In regards to your complaint this morning, actually, we are not performing any inspections or any type of enforcement regarding coronavirus.”
This story was originally published by Nate Carlisle at KSTU.