OSHA, Other Agencies Need to Step Up on COVID-19, Future Pandemics

Thomas McGarity

June 17, 2020

Governments and industries are "reopening" the economy while COVID-19 continues to rage across the United States. At the same time, the lack of effective, enforceable workplace health and safety standards puts workers and the general public at heightened risk of contracting the deadly virus. In a new report from the Center for Progressive Reform, Sidney Shapiro, Michael Duff, and I examine the threats, highlight industries at greatest risk, and offer recommendations to federal and state governments to better protect workers and the public.

In many essential industries, the coronavirus risk is particularly acute because of the nature of the work and of the workplaces in which it is conducted. The lack of enforceable, pandemic-specific protections for workers and the hodgepodge of industry responses heighten this danger to workers. Industries affected range from health care to meatpacking, transportation to warehousing.

Heaping injustice on top of danger, coronavirus-related hazards fall disproportionately on Black, Latinx, and low-income workers – people whose economic circumstances and less reliable access to health care renders them all the more vulnerable. These workers are being treated as expendable, forced by the threat of losing their jobs to accept risks no member of Congress or White House staffer would accept for themselves or their families.

Whether federal and state governments ultimately heed the advice of public health experts to protect us all by better protecting worker health remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has largely failed to provide leadership and has instead used the pandemic as a rationale to roll back enforcement of existing workplace safety measures.

While the federal government has shown little interest in protecting workers from the coronavirus, we note that such leadership is not beyond its reach. Throughout Protecting Workers in a Pandemic: What the Federal Government Should Be Doing, my colleagues and I offer recommendations, some specific to preventing the spread of the virus, and some that apply the lessons of the pandemic to enduring workers’ rights issues.

These recommendations include:

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should drop its irresponsible opposition to developing an emergency temporary standard on pathogen protection for workplaces and proactively protect workers from COVID-19.
  • OSHA should develop a permanent standard for pathogens like COVID-19 in workplaces where they pose a significant risk to workers.
  • OSHA should aggressively enforce the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act by issuing citations to any company that fails to comply with generally recognized pathogen protection practices, drawing on OSHA and CDC guidelines, as well as other recognized safety practices.
  • The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should require that meat and poultry packing plants reduce line speeds to a level at which employees can maintain a safe distance between one another and have time to maintain personal hygiene.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should develop interim final regulations protecting aircraft crew members from the risk of contracting COVID-19, drawing on OSHA and CDC guidance, as well as other safety practices relevant to pathogens, and make those regulations immediately applicable to aircraft in operation.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration should develop standards requiring mine operators to protect miners from the risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • The National Labor Relations Board and the courts should give employees who collectively leave workplaces where they face a significant risk of contracting COVID-19 the benefit of the doubt in exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act to refuse dangerous work.
  • State legislatures and workers' compensation agencies should create a presumption that at a minimum, any "essential" worker who suffers from COVID-19 contracted the infection at the workplace and is therefore entitled to workers' compensation.
  • Congress should enact legislation making paid sick leave a universal requirement for all employees, providing strong whistleblower protections for workers reporting dangerous conditions, and giving workers a private right of action in federal court to enforce OSHA standards.

While all of these recommendations focus on workers, the bottom line is that protecting worker health will better protect public health, especially in retail settings and other workplaces where customers, patients, and other members of the public have direct interactions with workers. To make this happen, OSHA and other federal agencies need to step forward, out of the background, and realign their operations to be more proactive, protective, and expedient. The American people deserve nothing less.

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