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Watchdog Faults OSHA for Lack of Covid Enforcement Cooperation

April 5, 2022, 6:00 PM

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, OSHA and other federal agencies failed to share information that could have led to more worker safety inspections in high-hazard industries, the Labor Department’s watchdog agency said Tuesday.

“By not identifying federal partners in a position to assist during a large-scale safety and health crisis and not having or creating collaborative agreements with those partners, OSHA lost a valuable opportunity to better protect U.S. workers,” a report from the Officer of Inspector General Larry Turner said.

Because the agency already had a “historically low number” of inspectors at the outset of the pandemic and a growing number of worksites to inspect, the report said, “enhanced collaboration” between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and federal agencies with inspectors already at workplaces could have better protected workers.

The number of OSHA inspectors decreased from 1,059 in 2011 to 748 in 2020.

Specifically, OSHA should have set up programs with other agencies to protect workers in health care, food production, and corrections, the inspector general said in Tuesday’s report. Those industries are regulated, respectively, by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; the Department of Agriculture; and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons.

Staff members and inspectors at those departments were generally unfamiliar with which Covid-19 hazards could warrant an OSHA inspection or how to contact OSHA if there was a concern, Turner’s office said. The report recommended that OSHA develop a plan so that during future large-scale safety and health crises, it is ready to contact other federal agencies that can assist OSHA inspection efforts.

‘More Fruitful’

Assistant U.S. Labor Secretary Doug Parker, who leads the workplace safety agency, defended it in a written response included with the IG report.

The agency participated in at least 10 task forces or working groups with agencies outside the Labor Department, Parker said. And, starting in early 2020 during the Trump administration, OSHA began meeting weekly with the USDA, the FDA, and CMS to discuss issues at meatpacking plants, he added.

“OSHA judged this effort to be far more fruitful than attempting to reach individual Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors,” Parker said.

He acknowledged that none of OSHA’s 157 Covid-related meatpacking inspections were based on referrals or complaints from USDA inspectors.

As for the lack of memorandums of understanding with agencies that could have established an OSHA referral system for referrals to OSHA, Parker said the development of the agreements would have diverted his agency’s staff from developing crucial guidance and enforcement policy.

OSHA didn’t respond to a request to discuss the report.

The inspector general report is one of several concerning OSHA’s Covid-19 response that have been released or are underway. Turner’s office in March 2021 said OSHA couldn’t prove the effectiveness of its Covid-related inspections. Inquiries are ongoing into the handling of whistleblower Covid-19 complaints and inspections of warehouses where Covid-19 was among the hazards.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com