Report: OSHA Faces Challenges Protecting Workers from Covid-19

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration faces many challenges in trying to implement measures that would protect workers from Covid-19 and its dangerous effects.

The Government Accountability Office recently testified to Congress about the measures Occupational Safety and Health Administration has taken to protect workers from the dangers of Covid-19. A report published by the GAO regarding these measures by OSHA, a division of the US Department of Labor, outlines the challenges OSHA faced in implementing standards designed to protect healthcare workers and vaccinate and test employees at large employers, and makes recommendations OSHA can take to remedy deficiencies in implementing these standards.

As the GAO report explains, OSHA did not have “COVID 19-specific standards” in place until June 2021. Until that point, it relied on existing standards in ensuring workplace safety with regard to Covid-19, for instance, standards concerning “respiratory protection.” It also relied on voluntary measures implemented by workplaces themselves, like mask mandates and social distancing rules. It also relied on its “general duty clause,” which the GAO describes as a standard that “can be used when no standard applies to a particular hazard and certain criteria are met.” Unfortunately, it turned out to apply this cause to potential Covid-19 hazards, because enforcing general duty violations takes “large amounts of documentation.” The GAO report notes that OSHA inspectors were under-resourced during the pandemic, among other challenges they faced.

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The OHSA relied on existing standards in the workplace to ensure safety and now faces challenges in their attempt to protect healthcare workers with regular testing and mandating vaccination.

In 2021, the GAO report recounts, OSHA issued two emergency standards relating to Covid-19, one of which it withdrew and the other of which it stopped enforcing. The agency is “also developing a separate infectious disease standard,” and also has a process by which it can issue emergency temporary standards if it determines that workers face “grave danger” in their workplaces, like the ones it withdrew or stopped enforcing. With respect to the broader standard it’s development, the GAO notes that OSHA has historically faced “multiple challenges” establishing such standards. “It took OSHA more than 7 years, on average, to develop and issue a new standard,” according to the GAO’s findings.

The GAO notes that it made a recommendation to OSHA in 2021 that the agency “assess challenges” it’s faced in its responses to Covid-19, “and take related action,” and that it recommended again in January 2021 that OSHA “evaluate procedures for ensuring reporting of summary data and develop a plan to remediate deficiencies.” Acknowledging that OSHA partially and generally agreed with these recommendations, respectively, GAO concludes that they “remain open.”

More information on the Government Accountability Office’s findings about OSHA’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic’s workplace hazards is available via the GAO report.

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