November 3, 2022

Report: OSHA Did Not Sufficiently Protect Workers from COVID-19

OSHA’s enforcement activities did not sufficiently protect workers from COVID-19 health hazards, the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found following an audit of the agency’s pandemic response. In a report issued on Oct. 31, OIG states that OSHA’s lack of citations to enforce its standard for recording and reporting occupational injuries and illnesses during COVID-19 inspections as well as incomplete information on COVID-19 infection rates at work sites are two issues that led to its conclusion that “there is a heightened risk that workers suffered unnecessary exposure to the virus.” OIG’s audit also found that 20 percent of a sample of on-site and remote COVID-19 inspections conducted from February 2020 through January 2021 were closed by OSHA without the agency ensuring that employers had demonstrated the mitigation of alleged health hazards.

“These issues occurred because OSHA had not established controls to ensure citations were issued or to document the rationale, does not require employers to report all COVID-19 cases among workers, and does not have a tool to ensure it receives and reviews all requested documentation prior to closing inspections,” the OIG report states.

The report outlines five recommendations that OIG says would improve OSHA’s enforcement activities and help protect workers from pandemic health hazards. OIG recommends that OSHA provide additional training to compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) to enforce its recording and reporting standard for fatalities; update its guidance or policies to include supervisory review of files prior to closing inspections to ensure that the files “contain adequate support for the reasons regarding citation issuance decisions”; and develop a plan regarding work site case data for future pandemics that involves collaboration with other agencies to improve OSHA’s response and enforcement actions. OIG’s report also recommends that OSHA require employers to notify all employees of all known positive cases of infectious diseases at work sites as part of its rulemaking on infectious diseases. The report’s final recommendation is for OSHA to develop and implement a tracking tool intended to ensure that the agency receives and reviews all items requested by CSHOs during inspections.

OSHA’s response to the report describes the agency’s disagreement with two of OIG’s recommendations, including the one about the infectious diseases rulemaking. OSHA explains that the planned scope of the rule is limited to the healthcare and social assistance sectors, stressing that a rule covering all employers would essentially “be a whole new rulemaking and significantly slow” the rulemaking process for infectious diseases, potentially leaving healthcare and social assistance workers at risk of pandemic-related hazards. The agency also disagrees with OIG’s tracking tool recommendation, clarifying that an alleged hazard does not mean that a hazard or violation exists.

“If OSHA does not issue a citation, then there is no requirement for an employer to provide documentation of hazard abatement to OSHA,” the agency explains. “[G]iven that the audit has not shown the lack of a tracking system has a material impact on inspection effectiveness, OSHA is not persuaded it should prioritize creating and mandating use of a uniform tracking tool for all investigatory documentation requests.”

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

Related: A previous OIG audit examined plans and guidance developed by OSHA to address COVID-19 as well as the extent to which challenges created by the pandemic had affected the agency’s ability to protect the safety of workers. The report issued in February 2021 found that a surge of work site complaints to OSHA combined with reduced and mostly remote inspections resulted in increased risk to U.S. workers’ safety.