OSHA Virus Response Draws a Labor Inspector General Audit (1)

Feb. 22, 2021, 9:01 PMUpdated: Feb. 22, 2021, 11:50 PM

The Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General told Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials that it will conduct an audit of the safety agency’s operations and efforts related to protecting workers from exposure to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will contact your audit liaison to schedule an entrance conference to discuss the audit’s objective, scope, and methodology,” Assistant Inspector General for Audit Carolyn R. Hantz said in a letter sent to Amanda Edens, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, on Monday.

Denisha Braxton, a spokeswoman for OSHA, didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the IG’s announcement. Luiz Santos, a spokesman for the inspector general, declined to discuss details of the coming probe.

The review comes after the safety agency has been criticized by worker safety proponents and by organized labor for its refusal to issue coronavirus-specific safety guidelines and for the relatively small size of fines imposed on businesses cited for taking inadequate precautions, as measured against the general duty clause contained in OSHA’s enabling legislation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

As of Jan. 14, the safety agency had imposed a collective $4,034,288 in penalties, primarily to healthcare firms and nursing homes for exposing workers to the Covid-19 virus, during the first 11 months of the pandemic.

The federal agency has received 13,649 complaints as of Feb. 21, and state-operated safety agencies have received 46,288 complaints, according to an OSHA database.

Lawmakers too have decried the agency’s efforts during the contagion.

In May, U.S. Senators including Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called on the inspector general’s office to audit OSHA’s handling of inspections and citations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The lawmakers called on the safety agency to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers who are exposed to the virus on the job. “There is no evidence that employers are sufficiently protecting workers—in fact, there is an abundance of evidence to the contrary,” they said in a letter then.

Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden, issued an executive order directing OSHA to consider an Emergency Temporary Standard to combat the spread of Covid-19 in American workplaces. That directive could be issued by March 15.

(Updates with background on OSHA enforcement efforts during the pandemic.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

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

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