As a pandemic raged and workers faced unprecedented hazards last year, the Trump administration dramatically scaled back the number of health and safety investigations taking place on worksites across the country.
New data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows a historic drop in inspections performed by the agency while the coronavirus spread. OSHA conducted 21,674 inspections between October 2019 and September 2020, down from 33,393 the previous fiscal year.
That amounts to a 35% drop.
Debbie Berkowitz, a workplace safety expert at the National Employment Law Project, said in an email that the number of inspections carried out in fiscal year 2020 was the lowest on record going back at least two decades.
“OSHA decided to shut down most enforcement for COVID-19,” Berkowitz said. “The agency truly disappeared. They should have done at least 12,000 more inspections.”
The Trump administration took withering criticism for its abysmal response to the workplace hazards posed by the virus. OSHA was flooded with worker complaints but only investigated a tiny share of them. It levied puny fines against employers even in cases where workers died. And it issued no new regulations to slow workplace transmission.
“The agency truly disappeared. They should have done at least 12,000 more inspections.”
It was apparent from litigation and data released during the pandemic that OSHA was doing fewer onsite inspections, under the rationale that field work could put inspectors in danger of contracting the virus. But the statistics released Tuesday indicate just how sharply the number of inspections fell, giving the agency a weak handle on the hazards on the ground.
Last week, the Labor Department’s Office of the Inspector General released a separate report on OSHA complaints and inspections, finding that changes at the agency had put workers at risk. OSHA saw a 15% increase in complaints in 2020 compared with a similar period in 2019, but carried out 50% fewer inspections.
Employers tend to fix hazards more quickly when OSHA performs inspections onsite. During the pandemic, the agency carried out most of its investigations remotely, trading letters back and forth with employers about hazards alleged by workers.
“As a result, there is an increased risk that OSHA is not providing the level of protection that workers need at various job sites,” the inspector general found.
Epidemiologists have found that workplace exposure has likely played a significant role in spreading the coronavirus in communities. The danger has been clear in nursing homes and meatpacking plants, where a high share of workers have been infected and many have died. Two of the worst outbreaks last year took place at a JBS meat plant in Greeley, Colorado, and a Smithfield meat plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
In both cases, OSHA found the companies had violated safety laws and put workers in danger, but issued small fines: $15,615 for JBS and $13,419 for Smithfield. The agency had declined to institute an emergency COVID-19 standard that employers would have to follow, leaving it without a major enforcement tool.
David Michaels, who ran OSHA during the Obama administration, said the data and inspector general report helped show how little the agency was doing under the Trump administration. OSHA is part of the Labor Department, which was led until Biden’s inauguration by then-Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, a management-side attorney appointed by Trump.
“Conducting inspections during COVID-19 presents a challenge, but the former political leadership failed to take measures that would have helped protect workers,” Michaels said in an email. “The message from former Labor Secretary Scalia appeared to be ‘go easy on employers’: no Emergency Standard, few inspections and tiny fines. The result was that many more workers were infected.”
The Biden administration has already taken a more aggressive tack, appointing Jim Frederick, a former safety official with the United Steelworkers union, to head up OSHA in an acting capacity. The agency has issued new coronavirus guidelines for employers and is considering instituting an emergency standard for the virus.
Frederick said through a spokesperson that OSHA is working to address the inspector general’s recommendations. He noted that the agency was performing some number of onsite inspections during the pandemic, and that it would continue to do on-the-ground investigations where it seemed safe.
“The agency is actively recruiting to hire new compliance safety and health officers and is committed to increasing the number of OSHA inspectors,” Frederick said.
Berkowitz said they have a lot of work to do to turn the agency around from the Trump years.
“An OSHA inspection is all a worker has when the workplace is unsafe,” Berkowitz said via email. “The last administration tried hard to hollow out the agency, which means the Biden/Harris Administration and Congress have a huge job to build the agency back.”