What happened: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued guidance that, aside from health care and frontline workers, companies will generally no longer be required to report COVID-19 cases among their workers.
Why it matters: We need our government officials to collect data in order to determine the best evidence-based policies to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus and protect people’s lives. In this case, COVID-19 is a serious public health threat affecting the entire globe and data collection on the virus is essential.
Data collection is essential to producing scientific results that inform policies, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is failing to collect data on worker cases of COVID-19. This lack of data collection will likely put many worker’s lives at-risk and could result in ineffectual policies that are less protective for workers. OSHA also is abandoning one of its key duties under congressional law to require that companies report certain types of injuries and illnesses that occur while on-the-job by letting most companies off the hook from reporting COVID-19 cases at the workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 specifically charges OSHA with the collection of work-related injuries and illnesses, which includes respiratory illnesses. While the act excludes the reporting of the common cold and flu, OSHA has already issued guidance stating that COVID-19 does not fall into this category.
However, on April 10, 2020, OSHA partially rolled back this reporting requirement by generally giving a pass to all companies aside from health care industries, emergency response organizations (e.g., emergency medical, firefighting, and law enforcement services), and correctional institutions. Other companies may need to report workplace-related COVID-19 cases only in very particular cases, such as when there is “objective evidence” that a COVID-19 case was work-related or when such “evidence was reasonably available to the employer.” It is highly uncertain how OSHA will enforce these particular requirements for data collection. Therefore, it is not inconceivable to imagine that most non-health care and non-emergency industries could stop most of their reporting of COVID-19 cases that occurred while on-the-job.
The COVID-19 pandemic may be the most serious public health threat experienced in the US since the 1918 flu pandemic, and scientists and health officials from across the nation are working feverishly to gather data on the fast spreading disease and chart science-based actions that will protect the population from the novel coronavirus. The workplace is undoubtedly a place at high risk of spreading COVID-19 and many essential workers are currently experiencing this high risk scenario, often without enough personal protective equipment. OSHA has an important duty to monitor and protect workers from undue hardships, which includes COVID-19.
OSHA and its parent agency, the Department of Labor, have faced growing criticism of its pandemic response and its failure to protect workers. Under the new congressional laws enacted during pandemic, the Department of Labor has used its authority to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance and has made it easier for small businesses not to pay for family leave benefits. It was reported by the Washington Post that career staff at the Department of Labor are frustrated that the agency refuses to mandate the use of recommended measures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), such as the wearing of masks, to protect workers from COVID-19. This includes an inability to advance two OSHA guidance measures that would have strengthen protections for health care workers.
This is not the first time that OSHA under the Trump administration has tried to sideline the collection of data on workplace injuries and illnesses. In 2018, OSHA proposed a sharp scale back for data collection on severe workplace injuries (i.e. amputation, in-patient hospitalization, or injuries resulting in the loss of eye) in a way that would have reduced the accuracy and thoroughness of the data and hampered the consideration of prevention strategies.
Public health experts and former Department of Labor officials expressed alarm over this new OSHA measure, describing it as an attack on transparency and potentially endangering frontline workers. OSHA is essentially ignoring reality and suggesting that certain workers – such as grocery store workers, pork/poultry workers, factory workers and bus drivers – are not at risk of contracting COVID-19 while on-the-job. By foregoing this important form of data collection, OSHA is elevating the concerns of corporate entities over the ability to collect data that can be used to help save lives during a pandemic.