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OSHA Construction Safety Inspections Plunge 84% in Pandemic

May 14, 2020, 6:59 PM

OSHA in-person checks of construction sites have fallen to about 16% of pre-coronavirus inspection levels, as the agency focuses on virus hazards in the health-care industry, agency data shows.

In the first week of March, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted about 395 construction inspections. During the week of April 26, there were about 65 inspections.

Construction work has continued across the nation, despite stay-at-home orders, because the federal government considers it an essential industry. While 975,000 construction workers became unemployed in April, there were still 6.6 million people employed by builders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

OSHA in an April 13 memorandum said it was prioritizing inspections of workplaces where there’s a high potential of exposure to the coronavirus, such has hospitals and nursing homes. Construction sites weren’t among the high-hazard locations.

As of May 12, OSHA had received 1,178 health-care complaints, compared with 129 construction complaints.

If a construction hazard is less than an imminent danger or there wasn’t a fatality, the issue won’t likely prompt an inspection, said Chris Trahan Cain, safety director of North America’s Building Trades Unions.

“I think OSHA is working hard and trying, but they don’t have the number of inspectors right now,” Cain said.

At the end of fiscal year 2019, OSHA had 957 inspectors and supervisors in the field, down from 1,077 in fiscal 2014, agency data showed.

OSHA declined an interview request to discuss construction inspections.

State versions of OSHA also are experiencing a decline in construction inspections, although the drop isn’t as steep. States went from about 335 inspections during the week of March 1 to about 175 checks the week of April 26, a drop of about 48%. California accounted for about one-third of the most recent inspections.

Phillip Russell, an industry-side attorney at Ogletree Deakins P.C. in Tampa, Fla., whose clients include contractors, said while OSHA inspections have decreased, state and local governments sometimes are visiting sites to check for compliance with their virus guidelines.

In Tampa, Russell said, the city dispatched contracted nurses to large commercial and residential projects to discuss whether the builders were meeting city requirements and offer advice.

Elsewhere, law enforcement agencies and building code inspectors performed some building site checks.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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