What happened: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) changed its COVID-19 reporting requirements such that severe COVID-19 cases at workplaces are less likely to get reported.
Why it matters: OSHA uses this data to identify the most hazardous workplaces in the country, which allows the agency to take action to protect workers from further harm. By changing the reporting requirements in a way that is likely to underestimate the toll of COVID-19 in workplaces, OSHA is preventing decisionmakers from carrying out measures that protect workers and their communities from the threat of a deadly disease.
On September 30, 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) changed how it required companies to report severe COVID-19 cases in a way that will likely undercount the number of severe COVID-19 cases at workplaces. In a news release, OSHA announced that it had changed the COVID-19 reporting requirements and had updated its FAQ. Companies only need to report a severe COVID-19 case to OSHA if the worker’s in-patient hospitalization occurred 24 hours after the worker caught the novel coronavirus at their workplace. Therefore, if an employer learns about a worker who was hospitalized due COVID-19 because of an activity related to work, they do not need to report it to OSHA unless the employer had evidence that the worker was exposed to the novel coronavirus at work 24 hours before they were hospitalized.
This requirement is not supported by best available science on COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the median time from exposure to symptom onset for COVID-19 is four to five days, and some COVID-19 patients can rapidly deteriorate and may need hospitalization about one week after symptom onset. Additionally, evidence suggests that it is incredibly difficult to track down the exact date of exposure to the novel coronavirus after someone tests positive because of recall bias and other sources of uncertainty.
The collection of data on work-related injuries and illnesses has long been considered a major duty of the Department of Labor and OSHA. Both the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 1904 (29 CFR Part 1904) require that employers prepare and maintain records of occupational injuries and illnesses and report these data to the government.
In 2014, OSHA issued a rule which required that all employers that fall under OSHA’s purview must report all work-related deaths and all severe work-related injuries and illnesses. Severe injuries and illnesses were defined as in-patient hospitalizations, amputations, and losses of an eye. In May 2020, OSHA issued a memo stating that this 2014 rule also applied to work-related COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. In late May, OSHA cited a Georgia nursing home for failing to notify the agency within 24 hours of six health care workers becoming hospitalized due to COVID-19. However, the citation to the Georgia nursing home was withdrawn on September 30 as result of OSHA’s new reinterpretation of the reporting requirements.
This is not first time during the pandemic that OSHA has failed to enforce work-related COVID-19 data collection. In April 2020, OSHA issued guidance that allowed all companies, except those with health care and frontline workers, to stop reporting COVID-19 cases that occurred among their workers, an action we previously considered to be an attack on science.
According to David Michaels, who was the head of OSHA during the Obama administration, OSHA’s reinterpretation of the 2014 reporting regulation will undermine the agency’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 and represents a rejection of a policy that sheds light on where severe COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring. OSHA’s action has undermined its mission statement to “ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women” since the agency can no longer use data to identify workplaces that are prone to severe COVID-19 outbreaks. COVID-19 is a deadly and highly contagious disease that is causing a massive amount of deaths and hospitalizations. OSHA’s action has taken away an important source of data that can be used to create evidence-based measures to combat this deadly disease and protect workers.