A report published Tuesday about how federal officials rapidly closed many of the more than 4,100 coronavirus-related workplace safety complaints that healthcare workers filed from March through earlier this month—even as dozens died from the disease—is generating outrage as rising Covid-19 infections in some states are yet again causing supply shortages of protective gear for medical professionals.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who last month called for an audit of how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has made decisions during the pandemic, declared it is "beyond outrageous" that the Trump administration is "ignoring" safety complaints from health workers risking their lives to combat the crisis.
Health care workers who risk their lives every day fighting this pandemic are being denied the personal protective equipment they need.
The Trump administration's response: Ignoring thousands of workers' safety complaints. Beyond outrageous. https://t.co/atIujH4Ncv
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) June 30, 2020
Complaints about workplace safety across various industries in the U.S. have been pervasive throughout the crisis, but the new joint report specifically focuses on thousands that health workers sent to state and federal OSHA offices.
As the report details:
A KHN investigation found that at least 35 healthcare workers died after OSHA received safety complaints about their workplaces. Yet by June 21, the agency had quietly closed almost all of those complaints, and none of them led to a citation or a fine.
The complaint logs, which have been made public, show thousands of desperate pleas from workers seeking better protective gear for their hospitals, medical offices, and nursing homes.
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The quick closure of complaints underscores the Trump administration's hands-off approach to oversight, said former OSHA official Deborah Berkowitz. Instead of cracking down, the agency simply sent letters reminding employers to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, said Berkowitz, now a director at the National Employment Law Project.
"This is a travesty," she said.
While OSHA has about 275 fatality probes still ongoing and about 1,300 healthcare complaints remain open, the rest are listed as "closed" in an agency database, according to the report. The investigation found just one known instance of a coronavirus-related citation in OSHA records: a $3,900 fine faced by a Georgia nursing home.
Among the thousands of now closed complaints, 21 "alleged that workers faced threats of retaliation for actions such as speaking up" about shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and over 100 were resolved within just 10 days. The report says that "it remains unclear how OSHA resolved hundreds of the complaints."
Jordan Barab, who served as deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA during the Obama administration, called the situation a "criminal failure" by the agency.
Sandra Oldfield, a worker at Kaiser Fresno, died after she cared for one patient who wasn’t initially suspected of having COVID-19 in mid-March and wore no protective gear.https://t.co/3dNd6f1BzP pic.twitter.com/FcYkKPD2yP
— Worksafe: Safety, Health, and Justice for Workers (@WorksafeCA) June 30, 2020
"With the federal government so clearly failing our health workers, governors must act now to protect those who protect us," Physicians for Human Rights tweeted in response to the report. The group also shared a petition urging the National Governors Association "to enact consistent and essential protections for healthcare workers across the country."
The KHN investigation comes as states that eased Covid-19 restrictions early such as Arizona, Florida, and Texas are seeing spikes in new infections. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress Tuesday that he is "very concerned" case numbers could keep going up.
"We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day," Fauci said of national numbers. "I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around."