A group of Senate Democrats says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has done so little to protect workers during the coronavirus pandemic that they want an audit of the agency’s enforcement efforts since March.
In a letter Wednesday, the lawmakers asked the Labor Department’s inspector general to investigate OSHA’s inspections and citations ever since workers began getting sick with COVID-19. They also asked the watchdog to probe the agency’s decision not to implement an emergency standard to deal with the virus.
Citing a drop in workplace investigations, the senators wrote that they have “grave concerns that OSHA is failing to meet its core mission of protecting worker health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The letter was spearheaded by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and cosigned by fellow Democrats Tim Kaine (Va.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Bob Casey (Penn.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), as well as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
In a statement to HuffPost, Warren said OSHA has “let employers off the hook” and “refused to take even the most basic steps to protect workers during this crisis.”
A Labor Department spokesperson disputed the lawmakers’ characterization of OSHA enforcement.
“With respect, the Senators’ letter paints a grossly inaccurate picture of the unprecedented response by OSHA and the federal government as a whole to the coronavirus pandemic,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The Department is committed to protecting American workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end.”
Democrats and workplace safety advocates have been hammering OSHA, which is part of the Labor Department, for going easy on employers during the pandemic. The agency has issued a raft of new guidance in recent weeks, but it is merely advice for employers on how to keep workers safe ― not legally enforceable measures that come with citations.
Former OSHA officials from the Obama presidency have harshly criticized the agency’s leadership under Trump for not issuing an emergency standard that would require certain employers to follow clear protocols for the coronavirus.
Critics also say the agency should be using every tool it has ― from fines to the bully pulpit ― to pressure employers to follow social distancing measures and provide protective equipment for workers.
The lawmakers said it was “beyond dispute” that the coronavirus “constitutes a new hazard” and therefore requires an emergency standard. They called OSHA’s rationale for not implementing one “plainly faulty,” pointing to COVID-19 outbreaks at a Walmart store in Massachusetts, a Smithfield meatpacking plant in South Dakota and an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky.
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia has defended the agency’s handling of the crisis, saying it is pursuing a “two-pronged approach” of guidelines and enforcement during the pandemic. But under the Trump presidency, the Labor Department has repealed a number of worker protections while scaling back enforcement efforts. The number of inspectors within OSHA has dropped to levels not seen in decades.
As of last week, OSHA had opened just 310 inspections related to COVID-19 out of nearly 4,000 complaints received on the subject, Politico reported. The agency still had not issued a citation dealing with the coronavirus at that point, though it has up to six months to issue one from the time a violation is alleged to have happened.
In their letter, the lawmakers cited those figures and said OSHA has “largely abdicated its investigation and enforcement responsibilities for even existing standards.”
On Thursday, Loren Sweatt, the agency’s principal deputy assistant secretary, testified before Congress that OSHA had issued one citation related to the coronavirus.
This post has been updated with a response from OSHA.
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