OSHA inspectors investigating possible COVID-19 violations faced communication and guidance challenges that frequently made their jobs more difficult, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
Inspectors in area offices had to manage a high volume of incoming reports during the pandemic while working in a telework environment where they failed to receive timely guidance from OSHA headquarters.
GAO was tasked under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to report regularly on the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to seven oversight reports to date, covering multiple federal agencies.
No assessment of lessons learned
The report released Oct. 27 reveals OSHA inspectors faced challenges in applying OSHA requirements to COVID-19 cases because for the first 15 months of the pandemic the agency relied on existing standards and voluntary employer guidance for enforcement.
OSHA later took steps to protect employees in industries where there was a high-risk of exposure through its one-year COVID-19 National Emphasis Program and healthcare-focused emergency temporary standard.
The agency also acknowledged the potential for high-risk COVID-19 exposure in other industries and has indicated it will be developing an infectious disease standard.
However, OSHA hasn’t assessed the lessons learned or practices developed during the pandemic to help area offices overcome those challenges they initially faced, such as the lack of guidance from OSHA headquarters and dealing with the high volume of reports while working remotely.
Recommendation and response
GAO recommends OSHA assess these various challenges in its ongoing response to the pandemic as soon as possible and take appropriate action.
In response, OSHA agreed it’s important to assess the lessons learned as well as the best practices for its operational response to the pandemic, but indicated that while the pandemic is ongoing its resources are best used to help in mitigating COVID-19 exposure in the workplace.
But the GAO report points to the fact it’s unclear when the pandemic will end and asserts OSHA should analyze its response to the pandemic and take action “as soon as feasible.”
This would enable OSHA to improve its enforcement efforts during the current pandemic and help it to prepare for operations in any future pandemic, the report states.