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OSHA takes a limited role protecting workers in pandemic

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 29, 2020
President Donald Trump has declared that meat processing businesses are "critical infrastructure." David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

OSHA takes a limited role protecting workers in pandemic

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 29, 2020
President Donald Trump has declared that meat processing businesses are "critical infrastructure." David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

The health and safety of many essential workers has been called into question by the COVID-19 pandemic, with meat processing workers in the spotlight as President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday declaring the businesses “critical infrastructure.” Several meat packing facilities have become coronavirus hotspots — thousands of workers have become sick and 20 have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Keeping the labor force safe is the mandate of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but the agency has taken a limited role during the pandemic.

The most important function of OSHA, according to its former head, David Michaels, who served in the Obama administration, is setting standards — rules that employers must follow. For instance, at the height of the AIDS crisis, the agency issued standards for bloodborne pathogens, which included the safe disposal of needles in health care facilities.

“As a result of that standard, every hospital room, every doctor’s office has a sharps container,” he said, referring to the secured boxes for discarded needles.

But it usually takes years of study and debate to come up with those rules. When there’s no time to waste, like in a public health emergency, the agency has the power to set temporary emergency standards.

OSHA hasn’t done that yet. While it has put out workplace guidelines that essentially say to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those aren’t legally binding like OSHA standards usually are, said Debbie Berkowitz with the National Employment Law Project.

“CDC guidance is advisory,” she said. “It’s voluntary. Employers do not have to follow it. They can choose to ignore it.”

Regardless of specific standards, under federal law all employers are legally obligated to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards,” said John Henshaw, who headed OSHA during the George W. Bush administration.

But when it comes to COVID-19, he said, “This is all new for everybody, so it’s kind of hard to argue it was a known hazard and you should have done something about it.”

When employers are suspected of violating OSHA standards, they’re subject to inspections and then citations. But the number of inspectors who enforce rules is limited, said Ann Rosenthal, a former top lawyer for the agency.

“It would take 165 years for them to get to every workplace in the country,” she said.

Inspections can be triggered by employee complaints. OSHA has received thousands of those since the pandemic began but has issued no citations to employers so far and has announced the agency will be limiting inspections to the highest-risk priorities like health care facilities.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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