Six senators, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are demanding an audit of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's decision-making during the coronavirus pandemic as unions, lawmakers, and other critics are accusing the agency of completely abandoning its responsibility to protect workers.
During a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on Thursday, Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) ripped OSHA for failing to issue a single coronavirus-related citation against an employer even as worker complaints about companies' refusal to follow safety guidelines continue to mount.
"OSHA, the agency that this nation has tasked to protect workers, has been largely invisible. It has failed to develop the necessary tools it needs to combat this pandemic and it has failed to fully use the tools it has."
—Rep. Alma Adams
Acting OSHA chief Loren Sweatt told lawmakers at the hearing that the Labor Department agency has received more than 5,000 complaints from workers pertaining to their employers' handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"OSHA, the agency that this nation has tasked to protect workers, has been largely invisible," said Adams. "It has failed to develop the necessary tools it needs to combat this pandemic and it has failed to fully use the tools it has, instead focusing principally on issuing press releases and voluntary guidance."
In a letter (pdf) to Labor Department inspector general Scott Dahl on Wednesday, Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Bob Casey (Penn.), and Tim Kaine (Va.) joined Warren and Sanders in ripping OSHA for "abdicating its mission" and demanding "an explanation for why citation and inspection numbers have dropped so dramatically during this national emergency."
The senators also requested that Dahl investigate OSHA's refusal to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard forcing companies to comply with federal coronavirus safety guidelines, despite pressure to do so from essential workers and consumer advocates. The agency has instead published safety recommendations that critics say are completely toothless and do nothing to require companies to keep their employees safe.
"Essential workers continue to fall ill and die due to workplace coronavirus exposure," the senators said in the letter, which was spearheaded by Warren. "More than 9,000 healthcare workers fell ill with coronavirus between February 12 and April 9; dozens of grocery store workers have died due to COVID-19; and in New York City alone, more than 80 transportation workers have died."
"This is just a small sampling of the thousands of workers spanning dozens of industries who have become sick—often gravely so—on the job," the letter continues. "It is beyond dispute that coronavirus constitutes a new hazard which poses grave danger to employees, and that current safety standards are inadequate to protect workers from this hazard."
COVID-19 is clearly a grave danger to workers’ health. So it’s mind-boggling that @OSHA_DOL’s inspections & citations plummeted in the crisis. I’ve requested @DOLOIG investigate whether OSHA failed to meet its legal requirement to protect workplace safety. https://t.co/uLbFWJqH1W
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) May 28, 2020
In testimony at the House Education and Labor Committee hearing Thursday, former OSHA chief David Michaels said the U.S. is "facing a massive worker safety crisis" that will continue getting worse unless the Labor Department takes decisive steps to force companies to follow Covid-19 safety requirements.
"OSHA's failure to take stronger actions," warned Michaels, "will result in more workers being made sick and killed by this virus."
Last week, the AFL-CIO sued OSHA in an attempt to force the agency to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard protecting employees in the workplace.
"It's truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organization tasked with protecting our health and safety. But we've been left no choice," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in a statement. "It's beyond urgent that action is taken to protect workers who risk our lives daily to respond to this public health emergency. If the Trump administration refuses to act, we must compel them to."