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OSHA, State Workplace Safety Inspections Drop on Virus Worries

April 2, 2020, 3:34 PM

The number of federal and state safety inspections of workplaces has dipped by more than 50% since the mid-March start of novel coronavirus restrictions.

The decline comes as the worker safety agencies cope with a flood of worker complaints about employers not taking enough precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

During the last week of February, before states and businesses began coronavirus containment measures, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and its 27 state counterparts conducted about 1,550 inspections, enforcement data shows.

During the week of March 15 through 21—after business restrictions and stay-at-home orders began—the number of reported inspections dropped to 664, a 57% decrease. The inspection tally likely will increase as late reports are filed.

Open for Business

The safety agencies have been busy sorting through coronavirus-related complaints, while trying to continue inspections of open construction projects and factories.

“OSHA is using a risk-based approach to assess and prioritize our field work,” a federal agency spokeswoman said.

None of OSHA’s 10 regional offices has closed and agency workers are using unscheduled leave and telework to adhere to state and local restrictions, the spokeswoman said.

At Virginia Occupational Safety and Health, Jennifer Rose, director of the agency’s cooperative program efforts, said the regional offices are open and enforcement officers are conducting inspections.

The agency’s staff of safety consultants who advise businesses are doing much of their work via telework, Rose said.

Washington state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health spokesman Frank Ameduri said the agency is conducting fatality and imminent danger investigations as well as making previously scheduled inspections of agriculture and construction operations.

Virus Complaints

Complaints about coronavirus issues generally are being handled by phone and email.

Nationwide there have been thousands of complaints to OSHA and state agencies. Federal OSHA would say only that they have “received hundreds,” while Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration placed their number at over 1,000.

Unions have encouraged workers to contact safety agencies. The National Nurses United issued a statement that it had filed 125 complaints with OSHA and states. Most of the complaints were about a lack of personal protective equipment for nurses and co-workers.

Safety agency staff sizes aren’t large enough to send out inspectors in response to each complaint, so agencies often contact the employer about the problems raised in the complaint and request information on how the hazard is being corrected—what federal OSHA calls a “rapid-response inquiry.”

“If they don’t provide the information, or if it sounds like the situation is not being addressed, we’ll open an inspection,” Ameduri explained.

So far, the complaints about hospitals and other health-care facilities aren’t producing an inspection surge, OSHA’s inspection database showed.

From March 1 through 21, federal OSHA opened 18 inspections of health-care facilities. State programs began 58.

During the same three weeks, federal OSHA and the states each conducted more than 850 construction site inspections.

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; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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