OSHA Failed to Protect Workers From COVID-19

Published Oct 1, 2021

What happened: The Inspector General at the US Department of Labor (DOL) issued a report on how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to enact and enforce science-based safety measures during the pandemic, which in turn failed to protect workers across the country from COVID-19.

Why it matters: OSHA has a duty to enact and enforce science-based measures to keep people healthy and safe at their workplaces. By failing to do so during the pandemic, the agency ended up endangering millions of workers across the nation.

According to the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Inspector General, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Trump administration failed to carry out needed enforcement measures to protect workers during the pandemic. The report showed that OSHA had failed in its duty to carry out safety inspections and issue an enforceable measure that would have required employers to protect its workers from COVID-19.

Specifically, between February 1, 2020 and October 26, 2020, OSHA received far more complaints (15 percent more) than during the same time period in 2019, yet performed far fewer safety inspections (50 percent less). State-level health and safety programs were far better at helping protect workers during the pandemic; they issued 1,384 more violations and conducted 461 more COVID-19 related inspections than OSHA. The report concluded that “Due to the increase in complaints, reduction in inspections, and most inspections not being conducted onsite, there is an increased risk that OSHA has not been providing the level of protection that workers need at various job sites.”

Scientific evidence suggests that COVID-19 spreads especially well in indoor spaces. This is particularly true in crowded settings that are not well-ventilated and where COVID-19 protection measures, like mask wearing and social distancing, are not enforced. These indoor conditions are widely present in workplaces across the country and therefore workplace transmission is believed to play a major role in how COVID-19 has been spreading across the US and the world.

The DOL Inspector General also highlighted OSHA’s refusal to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from COVID-19, a standard that would have been enforceable and where workplaces would have been required to comply with. The report characterized this failure to act by quoting former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Lauren Sweatt’s words to Congress on March 18, 2020. Sweatt stated that “working on formal rulemaking” would be “counterproductive to both the public health response and robust stakeholder engagement” and described how it would be a burden on businesses. The workplace COVID-19 guidance measures issued by the Trump administration were not enforceable and other enforcement mechanisms under OSHA, like its General Duty Clause, rarely result in violations being issued. As a result, there were no enforceable mechanisms in place to protect millions of workers from COVID-19.

OSHA’s duties are “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards.” However, it is clear that during the pandemic the agency failed to live up to its mission statement. We’ve previously documented two other attacks on science by OSHA during the pandemic (see here and here). People deserve the right to come to work and be protected by science-based measures that keep them healthy and safe. OSHA under the Trump administration failed to carry out this basic duty during the pandemic, and therefore allowed a dangerous disease to spread, harming and killing thousands of people in the US.