Did OSHA’s enforcement activities help protect U.S. workers from COVID-19 health hazards? A report from the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Inspector General (OIG) says it did not.
While the OIG report acknowledged that OSHA was presented with some unique challenges throughout the pandemic, it ultimately reveals that the safety agency didn’t sufficiently protect workers from COVID-19.
OIG auditors interviewed OSHA officials from national and area offices “and reviewed OSHA guidance, public laws and states’ standard related to COVID-19” to come to this conclusion. Auditors also analyzed OSHA’s complaint and enforcement data related to COVID-19 and reviewed sampled inspections. Additionally, they evaluated survey results from the OSHA inspectors who conducted COVID-19 inspections during the pandemic.
3 issues led to failure
The OIG report reveals that OSHA failed because it:
- didn’t issue citations to enforce the standard for recording and reporting occupational injuries and illnesses in 15% of sampled fatality inspections
- lacked complete information on COVID-19 infection rates at worksites, and
- closed inspections without ensuring it received and reviewed all evidence requested from employers demonstrating COVID-19 health hazards had been mitigated.
These issues occurred and persisted because OSHA failed to establish controls to ensure citations were issued, didn’t require employers to report all COVID-19 cases among workers and didn’t have a tool to ensure it received and reviewed all requested documentation before closing an inspection.
This resulted in “a heightened risk that workers suffered unnecessary exposure to the virus.”
5 recommendations for improvement
To correct these issues, OIG recommends OSHA:
- provide additional training to inspectors to enforce the recording and reporting standard for fatalities
- update policies to include supervisory review of inspection files to ensure they contain adequate support for the reasons regarding citation issuance decisions before closing inspections
- develop a plan for a future pandemic to collaborate with external agencies on worksite case data
- require that, as part of OSHA’s rulemaking on infectious diseases, employers to notify all employees of all known positive cases of an infectious disease at a worksite, and
- develop and use a tracking tool to ensure OSHA receives and reviews all items inspectors request during inspections to ensure hazards have been mitigated.
OSHA agrees, in part
OSHA agreed to provide additional training to its inspectors and to update its policies to include supervisor review of inspection files.
The agency agreed that it would be beneficial to have access to worksite case data, but management officials said they’d need to explore the feasibility of that recommendation because they’d need to determine:
- if the specific infectious disease case data is in a form to allow for analysis and prioritization
- the appropriate timeline for effective intervention, and
- another agency’s willingness to make data available to OSHA.
As for the recommendation on the infectious disease rulemaking, OSHA disagreed saying that the planned scope of the infectious disease rule is limited to the health care and social assistance sectors. However, the agency said it would consider this based on public comments, but it would likely call for an entirely new rulemaking that could slow down the process for the health care rule.
OSHA disagreed with the recommendation regarding the tracking tool, saying that OIG should have to prove a material impact on inspection effectiveness to warrant the use of such a tool.