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Labor Watchdog Dings OSHA for Virus Response, Enforcement (1)

March 2, 2021, 7:00 PMUpdated: March 2, 2021, 8:19 PM

The U.S. government’s principal workplace safety agency can’t show that its inspection policies and regulations were effective in combating workplace Covid-19 infections, according to a new report from the U.S. Labor Department’s inspector general.

“There is an increased risk that OSHA has not been providing the level of protection that workers need at various job sites,” the Office of Inspector General said in the report released Tuesday.

The report comes out as the embattled Occupational Safety and Health Administration is expected to issue an emergency temporary standard for Covid-19 by March 15 and Congress is close to passing a virus relief bill that would boost the safety agency’s spending by $75 million. The report is part of an inspector general review of the Labor Department’s response to the pandemic requested by Congress and funded by a $26 million appropriation.

The watchdog agency highlighted problems that include a decline in OSHA inspections while complaints increased, a dependency on remote inspections where inspectors never actually visit work sites, the absence of a program to focus inspections on Covid-19 high-hazard workplaces, and the lack of a coronavirus regulation.

This confirms that the Trump administration should have enacted a Covid-19 rule, said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. “Issuing an enforceable standard sooner could have saved lives. Instead, workers were left on their own,” Scott said in an email.

Immediately following the report’s release, a Department of Labor spokesperson said via email that “OSHA is reviewing its enforcement efforts related to Covid-19 and will identify any changes that could better protect workers.”

OSHA’s career-service deputy assistant secretary, Amanda Edens, in a response included in the report, pointed to a pair of efforts mandated by President Joe Biden’s Jan. 21 executive order.

Edens said OSHA is working to launch a national Covid-19 emphasis program to target workplaces where infections are more likely and is considering whether to issue an emergency virus standard. Biden directed that if the agency believes the virus poses a grave danger to workers, it must issue the standard by March 15.

Remote Control

Edens said the agency also will compare past in-person inspections to those done remotely to determine the remote inspection’s effectiveness, looking at such factors as the number of serious violations issued and whether an employer corrected the cited hazards.

The inspector general’s office said it is concerned the lack of inspectors in workplaces led to hazards going unidentified and employers being slow to correct problems OSHA spotted. It also noted that OSHA failed to include in its inspection summaries information about whether an inspection was done remotely or in-person.

The agency didn’t begin to include that information until November—months after the virus had taken hold of the country—following requests from the inspector general.

The report examined inspections done during the Trump administration from Feb. 1 to Oct. 26, 2020 and compared them to the same time span in 2019. The inspector general found that while complaints and referrals to OSHA increased by 15% to 11,041, inspections declined by 50% to 13,010.

Safety agency officials told the inspector general investigators that OSHA’s efforts to protect its own staff from Covid-19 infections and to avoid having asymptomatic inspectors spread the virus at inspection sites led to conducting most inspections via telephone, video links, or email.

(Updated with comments from U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott and the Labor Department in the fifth and sixth paragraphs.)

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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