And its decision not to issue any rules about coronavirus safety that companies would have been required to follow also left workers unsafe, the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded. The reduction in on-site inspections may have resulted in more accidents, illnesses and deaths, the report noted.
“We are concerned that since most OSHA inspections were done remotely during the pandemic, hazards may go unidentified and unabated longer, with employees being more vulnerable to hazardous risk exposure while working,” the inspector general wrote.
The United States has not studied the issue nationally, but workplace transmission has made for a significant portion of the infections across the country. Hundreds of thousands of essential workers in industries such as health care, groceries, warehouses and meatpacking have been infected with the virus, and tens of thousands have died.
The OIG report bolsters complaints made by workers advocates, labor unions and other liberal groups for much of the pandemic about the way the agency fell short of its mission on workplace safety under Trump and then-Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia during an unprecedented public and occupational health crisis.
OSHA said it was looking into the report but did not immediately respond beyond that. Scalia did not respond to voice-mail messages left on phone numbers listed for him in public records.
The agency received 15 percent more safety complaints between Feb. 1 and Oct. 26, the period studied in the report, than the same time frame in 2019, yet performed 50 percent less inspections, the report noted.
Loren Sweatt, who headed the agency under Trump, said in a brief comment that “OSHA inspectors should be commended for conducting inspections under very trying and difficult circumstances.”
The inspector general also spotlighted OSHA’s refusal to issue an enforceable standard, called an ETS, for coronavirus safety, that workplaces would have been required to comply with.
Instead, OSHA, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued guidances — recommendations watered down with phrases such as “if feasible” and “when possible,” that came with no threat of enforcement. They were a source of anger and frustration for worker representatives such as unions and Democrats in Congress.
“The inspector general documented OSHA’s failure under President Trump to mount a strong effort to protect millions of front line workers doing essential work,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama presidency and has been a critic of its lax enforcement during the pandemic. “Thousands of virus-exposed workers complained to OSHA, but the agency did little to help them. As a result, many workers were sickened or killed."
Regional officials at OSHA told the inspector general that creating a standard would have been useful, it noted in the report. They said that the General Duty Clause — a broad requirement that workplaces are free from hazards that is rarely used by OSHA — is hard to cite and that a standard would have made enforcement and the issuance of citations easier.
From Feb. 1 through Oct. 26, 2020, the period the OIG examined last year for the report, OSHA issued only three General Duty Clause violations. Overall, OSHA issued 295 violations for 176 inspections related to covid-19 during the period, out of 11,041 complaints.
“If OSHA issued an airborne infectious disease ETS designed to address COVID-19, employers would be legally obligated to comply with it,” the report noted. “In addition, an ETS would impose more specific obligations that would give [health officials] more clarity on the evidence they needed to gather to support violations.”
OSHA concurred with the report’s recommendations, the report said.
“Despite overwhelming pressure from Congress, workers and public health experts, the previous administration refused to take any meaningful action to protect workers,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Scott has been calling for the implementation of an emergency standard since last year. “Now, the inspector general’s report reveals the consequences of the Trump administration’s inaction."
In the absence of federal action, states such as Oregon and Michigan set their own workplaces standards, lead by Virginia’s move early last summer.
Under a directive from President Biden, OSHA is already examining its enforcement action and whether to institute an ETS.