March 11, 2021

Office of Inspector General Recommends OSHA Action on COVID-19 Inspections

A surge of work site complaints to OSHA combined with reduced and mostly remote inspections have resulted in increased risk to U.S. workers’ safety, according to a report issued on Feb. 25 by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General. OIG’s conclusions are based on an audit that examined plans and guidance developed by OSHA to address COVID-19 as well as the extent to which challenges created by the pandemic have affected the agency’s ability to protect the safety of workers.

The OIG report highlights data provided by OSHA showing that the agency received 15 percent more complaints and conducted 50 percent fewer inspections between Feb. 1, 2020, and Oct. 26, 2020, compared to a similar period in 2019. Federal OSHA also issued fewer violations for fewer COVID-19-related inspections than state plans. According to the report, OSHA issued 295 violations for 176 inspections related to COVID-19, while state plans issued 1,679 violations for 756 inspections. Of the COVID-19 complaints received by OSHA during February–October 2020, 35 percent came from the healthcare and retail trade sectors. Twenty-four percent of all complaints related to COVID-19 came from just the healthcare industry, including workplaces such as hospitals, nursing homes, and residential care facilities. Restaurants and other eating places accounted for six percent of all COVID-19 complaints during that period, and together construction and general warehousing and storage represented five percent.

The report also describes concerns about the lack of onsite inspections during the COVID-19 pandemic. A previous report issued by OIG in 2017 found that for approximately one-third of the citations reviewed, employers abated the hazard during the OSHA inspection or within 24 hours of the agency identifying the hazard.

“Without onsite observations, hazards or unsafe practices may not be identified or mitigated for longer periods, placing employees’ safety at greater risk,” OIG explains. “The lack of onsite inspections may impact OSHA’s ability to observe employer practices, quickly mitigate any potential hazards, and issue violations sooner to control the spread of the disease to other employees.”

OIG urges OSHA to improve its inspection strategy by prioritizing high-risk employers for onsite inspections related to COVID-19. The report also recommends that OSHA compare COVID-19 inspections conducted remotely with those performed on site and examine the frequency and timeliness with which hazards are identified and abated. OSHA is already addressing another OIG recommendation to determine whether establishing an emergency temporary standard (ETS) specific to infectious disease is necessary to help control the spread of COVID-19 among workers. If the agency deems a COVID-19 ETS to be necessary, an executive order issued by President Joe Biden during his first week in office directs OSHA to issue it by March 15.

To learn more, view the full report (PDF) from OIG’s website.