Skip to Main Content
Contribute Try STAT+ Today

Workplace exposures continue to be a major driver of the coronavirus pandemic, something that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should be on top of. But a reinterpretation of a reporting rule is making that all but impossible.

The workers who take care of our sick and elderly, who keep our families fed and provisioned, and who keep our transportation systems operating do their jobs at great risk of illness and death. Those jobs put them in close contact with other workers and the public, and they are often given inadequate personal protective equipment — or none at all. Many travel to and from work in crowded public or semi-private transportation. Since the virus does not stop at the exit of the factory or nursing home or prison or subway car, these workers bring the epidemic into their homes and communities.

Exposure to the virus has sickened hundreds of thousands of workers and killed many hundreds more. Nursing home operators, for example, reported 365,000 confirmed or suspected infections among their staff and more than 1,000 deaths between May and mid-October. The Food and Environment Reporting Network has compiled reports of more than 70,000 infections and 300 deaths among workers in the food industry. Both sets of statistics are incomplete and clearly underestimate the true toll. Many more workers in other occupations and industries have been made seriously ill by the virus, or have been killed by it, although the true numbers are unknown and only limited efforts are being made to collect more complete and accurate data.

advertisement

Given the extent of workplace transmission, controlling exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in the workplace must be a prominent component of our efforts to stem the pandemic. Yet under the direction of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, OSHA, the primary federal agency with the authority to enforce safe conditions for workers, has come under sustained and justified criticism both for its meager enforcement activities and its refusal to issue an emergency temporary standard requiring employers to take specific steps to protect workers. OSHA has become primarily an advisory agency instead of an enforcement agency, offering voluntary guidance to employers instead of issuing enforceable standards.

For OSHA to intervene in workplaces where workers are being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, it needs to know how many workers are being infected, where they are located, and what conditions they are working under. One important tool for acquiring this information is a regulation the agency issued in 2014 when I was serving as assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. That regulation, “Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illnesses,” requires employers to report worker fatalities to OSHA within eight hours of a worker’s death and to notify it of hospitalizations and amputations within 24 hours of the event.

advertisement

The purpose of requiring employers to report the most severe work-related injuries and illnesses is to help OSHA more effectively target its enforcement and technical assistance activities to the most hazardous workplaces, as well as to engage those employers, encouraging them to better protect the safety of their employees. In accordance with this regulation, early in the pandemic OSHA reminded employers they were required under the recording and reporting rules to inform the agency of hospitalizations and deaths of workers with Covid-19.

The first of the few Covid-19-related citations that OSHA has issued to employers for violating its regulations was to a Georgia nursing home, which had delayed notifying OSHA that six of its workers had been hospitalized.

At the end of September, however, the Department of Labor suddenly withdrew the Georgia citation and announced an absurd reinterpretation of the reporting regulation under which employers are no longer required to report the most severe Covid-19 cases to OSHA. While the regulation clearly states that OSHA requires employers to report “all work-related in-patient hospitalizations, as well as amputations and losses of an eye, to OSHA within 24 hours of the event” (emphasis added), the agency is now telling employers that they must report worker hospitalizations for Covid-19 only if the hospitalization occurs within 24 hours of their workplace exposure to the virus, instead of within 24 hours of the employer learning of the hospitalization.

Reporting a worker’s hospitalization within 24 hours of a workplace incident is appropriate for traumatic injuries such as falling off a roof, but it makes no sense for Covid-19. It is generally impossible to identify the precise moment someone is exposed to Covid-19. As the country has seen in the case of President Trump, hospitalization for Covid-19 can occur several days after a person first develops symptoms, or even weeks, and symptoms do not appear until days after infection.

While Scalia has asserted that OSHA has all the tools it needs to ensure workers are protected, the agency’s new policy is yet one more decision suggesting that under his direction, OSHA is more concerned with hiding employee infections and shielding employers from their obligation to protect workers than with protecting workers from infection.

What the reinterpretation of the reporting regulation means is that Covid-related hospitalizations will no longer be reported to OSHA, seriously handicapping the agency’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to workplace outbreaks. This is a betrayal of the letter and the intent of the regulation. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which workplace exposures play a central role in spreading the infection, OSHA has rejected a policy that lets it know where serious outbreaks are occurring. This new policy will impede efforts to protect workers not only from Covid-19, but also from other occupational diseases, including tuberculosis, silicosis, and lead poisoning.

In stark contrast, while OSHA is gutting federal requirements to report on their workers hospitalized with Covid-19, states are taking action to expand mandatory reporting of workplace cases by employers. For example, Virginia, California, and New Mexico have issued emergency regulations to require employers to report Covid-19 cases, regardless of whether the infection results in hospitalization, so a rapid investigation can be made.

The Biden-Harris administration will have the opportunity to enhance and strengthen the federal government’s efforts to control workplace exposure to Covid-19. Reversing this misinterpretation of OSHA’s reporting rule should be among the early actions it takes to reduce workplace transmission, save workers’ lives, and help the nation’s workplaces reopen and operate safely.

David Michaels is a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. He was assistant secretary of labor for OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and is the author of “The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception” (Oxford University Press, January 2020).

  • If all goes well, we will soon be able to rid ourselves of much of the foolishness brought about by that coven of grifters Trump and his minions appointed to gut federal agencies.

  • The notion that you can send infected workers “home” to isolate or to a hospital to isolate seems impractical. If home is an apartment building with 450 tenants, all you will accomplish by sending them home is to infect 450 tenants. Same thing if they go to a hospital. The reality is there is no real place set aside to quarantine. Better quality masks are only just starting to show up now. If you send hme everybody who tests positive, your workforce will thin out very rapidly. They need to start tracking the people who are testing as recovered, who have the antibodies showing recovery, and rehire essential positions with recovered people who don’t need to be tested daily.

  • Thank you for shedding light into this as I am medically high risk and had four (4) incidents at work do I know off, three (3) of them are official as professional cleaners came in. Inspite of all this they have given me a one (1) day telecommute option and have at time waive it due to poor management of staff on holidays.

  • As they are written, the rules don’t make sense for any communicable disease. As we have seen in meat processing plants, nursing homes and other facilities, COVID can be spread in the workplace, regardless of where it “originated”. OSHA can’t do anything to help unless it knows about incidents of workplace spread. Workers need to be protected as much as possible, and workplaces need to be held accountable.

  • No company or employer is going to accept responsibility for an employee getting COVID until The Government can prove COVID was confirmed at the employee’s work location. Just like an employee getting injured at home and claiming it happened at work! How will the Government control contact tracing and prove
    the employee got COVID at work!!

    EHS Manager
    Phoenix, AZ

  • The distortion and singularity of Michael’s perspective is an absolute embarrassment to the profession of occupational safety and health. He presents a position that
    Covid is primarily transmitted from the workplace to family and community members. To be clear, I am not suggesting that workers don’t or cannot contract the virus at work and bring it into the communal and familia environment. However, in comparison to other, less controlled , environments outside the work place, these employees interact daily with a larger, more geographically diverse population of risk transmission.

    More over, Michael’s continues to see OSHA as a dynasty only he can effectively rule. During his tenure he proved that belief in many instances. He pushed his agenda under the auspices of worker safety, but left them high and alone while vilifying employers. True advocates of worker safety, and I consider myself one, understands what he does not or will not; that is- there is a balance begging to be struck in this situation as none other before. Michaels is not the Wise King needed to solve this or any other crisis of this kind. This issue demand real answers from people who understand applications and behaviors in the real work world. Otherwise we will continue to be force fed rhetoric and promulgated theory from a political wannabe.

    Of course this is simply my opinion

  • Everyone should wear face covering and practice 6′ social distancing not
    Every where people gather in groups of 4 or more.

  • If you are at all familar with osha regulations eliminating the hazzard by engineering should done first before the use of PPE, so if any employers only remidy is a mask/ ect. Guess what. Lead, ammonnia,toxic vapors and other substances have specific procedures, far beyond what is commonly use for covid.

  • Obviously employers are dodging the bullet. Report your injuries and illnesses all sectors.

    Those employees that require PPE can legally refuse work, and cannot loose your job. File a written report of any safety issue to your supervisor if not immediately addressed you can by law refuse work.

    It is the employers duty to assure a safe work environment. Push back !!!!!

  • Love this article. More reporting like this should go world wide. I work in the RV industry in indiana and they have been hiding positive people and not telling us about it and when you complain to osha or health department nothing happens. And her in indiana they are rushing to stop any lawsuits of getting covid due to these company bypassing there worries so they can continue to make money off of the workers while putting the workers and the families in danger. Bad enough we have no rights in indiana as workers. Thanks for this again hope more people know about what they plain on voting and making law due to greed and lack of care for indiana workers as well as other states it’s dirty out there.

Comments are closed.