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Warren and Sanders ask DOL inspector general to look at OSHA’s actions during COVID-19 pandemic

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Photo: Senate Democrats

Washington — Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are among six legislators calling on the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General to investigate OSHA’s “handling of inspections and citations” during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as DOL’s decision not to issue an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases.

In a letter sent May 27 to DOL Inspector General Scott Dahl, the senators cite a May 18 Politico report stating that OSHA had opened 310 inspections related to COVID-19 “despite the agency receiving more than 3,990 COVID-19-related complaints.” Additionally, inspections have dropped to a daily average of 60 from 217 after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, according to the report.

The letter – co-authored by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) – also notes that OSHA citations have decreased nearly 70% compared with the prior two years.

During a May 28 hearing convened by the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, acting OSHA administrator Loren Sweatt said the agency had suspended enforcement during previous natural disasters but has not done so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sweatt revealed that OSHA has issued one COVID-19-related citation but said the agency is investigating more than 5,000 complaints stemming from the pandemic. She added that the agency has up to six months to issue citations or other enforcement actions from any investigations.

In the letter, the Senators acknowledge that “OSHA did release revised enforcement policies on May 19, 2020, announcing the agency is ‘increasing in-person inspections at all types of workplaces’ and ‘enforc[ing] the recordkeeping requirements of 29 CFR 1904 for employee coronavirus illnesses for employers.” However, they go on to say that, “While we are hopeful that these changes, which went into effect on May 26, 2020, will lead to increased coronavirus-related inspections and enforcement activity, we believe it is critical to audit OSHA’s efforts to date, and what impact the updated guidance may have.”

 

The letter also cites the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which the senators point out “mandates that DOL ‘shall provide … for an emergency temporary standard to take immediate effect’ if the secretary of labor ‘determines (A) that employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards, and (B) that such emergency standard is necessary to protect employees from such danger.’”

Sweatt declined to answer questions about an emergency temporary standard during the hearing, saying DOL’s legal counsel advised her not to do so because of a pending AFL-CIO lawsuit. Subcommittee Chair Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) and House Education and Labor Committee Chair Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) both questioned the legal basis of her refusal.

Sweatt also indicated that OSHA will not issue a standard on infectious diseases anytime soon. That proposed standard is listed on the “long-term” actions in DOL’s latest regulatory agenda.

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