What? OSHA Lifts Virus Rules?
Terry H. Schwadron
April 14, 2020
Just in case you thought that re-opening the economy was going to prove to be less than monumentally challenging, here comes one detail from the Trump administration that you may find, well, surprising.
OSHA, the Department of Labor branch set up to look out for worker conditions, has decided that employers outside of the health care industry generally will not be required to tell authorities about any emergent coronavirus cases among their workers.
In an enforcement order, employers like restaurants or factories are being told that they have no responsibility to let OSHA know if someone gets sick from an exposure at work. Unless it is obvious contagion, whatever that means, employers are being exempted from recording the incident.
Those involved in public health note that this rule simply means that it will be more difficult to identify a coronavirus hotspot as it develops, suggesting that there will be yet more cyclical problems with continuing contagious in industries where people work side by side.
Just this week, we were hearing of a virus outbreak in a chicken preparation factory where workers are on the production line next to one another under conditions that do not reflect physical distancing. How the factory is supposed to determine what is an “obvious” case of contagion is unclear under these rules.
The whole debate over re-opening the economy revolves around questions exactly like this one. It is why public health advocates want to wait until there is widespread availability of immunity tests to assure workers — and employers — that the returning workers have at least some resistance to contagion. In turn, those immunity tests, when combined with broadened disease testing and contact tracing, are aimed at making it easier to identify and quarantine smaller hotspots as they inevitably develop.
The OSHA statement acknowledges COVID-19 as a recordable illness, meaning employers would have to notify the agency when an employee gets sick from an exposure at work. But the agency says most employers won’t have to try to determine whether employees’ infections happened in the workplace unless it’s obvious.
Presumably that means if a whole line of production works got the disease.
Employers in health care, emergency response and corrections would have to inform OSHA of cases that probably resulted from work. The reasoning seems to be that employers outside of health care “may have difficulty making determinations about whether workers who contracted COVID-19 did so due to exposures at work,” according to the memo.
The memo also said that by not enforcing the requirement on most employers, the agency would “help employers focus their response efforts on implementing good hygiene practices in their workplaces, and otherwise mitigating COVID-19’s effects, rather than on making difficult [work-related] decisions in circumstances where there is community transmission.”
As it happens, just yesterday Huffington Post noted that Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork producer, has shut for at least two weeks its sprawling pork processing facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after more than 230 workers tested positive for the coronavirus. The meat packing industry has suffered at least 30 deaths in different states, which public health experts say results from working on closely spaced production lines. It was not immediately clear whether meat was considered tainted.
There have been other objections as the Trump administration and occupational safety experts spar over loosening of OSHA rules. Employer record-keeping is seen as adding unnecessary paperwork and regulation on the one hand, or make it easier to hide workplace injuries on the other.
Of course, this is the same Donald Trump who daily wants credit for a “whole of government approach” to fighting the disease. OSHA seems being that purview.
In general, the Labor Department, which posts all kinds of coronavirus protections on its website, has generally been missing in action in the actual protection of workers.
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, has portrayed recording injuries and illnesses as burdensome red tape. Labor unions have been asking Scalia to issue an emergency standard for infectious disease, which would give health care facilities clear, enforceable standards to protect their workers during the pandemic.
Instead, OSHA has created a new poster for employers with tips on preventing infections, and tweaked the rules around respirators to help employers deal with a shortage of protective gear for workers.
Scalia has expressed concerns about unemployment insurance being too generous to workers. He has used the Labor Department’s authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance and to make it easier for small businesses not to pay family leave benefits. The new rules make it more difficult for gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers to get benefits, while making it easier for some companies to avoid paying their workers coronavirus-related sick and family leave.
Among career staff at the agency, employees have complained that it has not ordered its staff to follow safeguards, including the wearing of masks, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect workers.
It is too much to expect the “whole of government” to include the Labor Department?