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April 16, 2020
Oregon OSHA ramps up COVID-19 enforcement

Oregon OSHA will begin systematically conducting spot-checks to verify that employers are complying with requirements aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. State workplace safety and health officials announced they are ramping up enforcement activity in response to a spike in complaints from workers who feel at risk of infectious disease exposure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The spot-checks, intended to confirm employers actually are doing what they are telling the agency they are doing in response to worker complaints, will be performed in addition to more time-intensive, on-site inspections initiated by Oregon OSHA.

“This approach will allow us to verify the responses to complaints that we’ve received so far from employers while focusing our enforcement resources on those employers most likely to be in continued non-compliance,” Oregon OSHA Administrator Michael Wood said in an agency statement.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus first identified in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019.

Oregon OSHA reported receiving 2,887 complaints related to the coronavirus between March 2 and April 12. The agency received more than 1,200 complaints the week of Governor Kate Brown’s March 23 stay-at-home and social distancing order.

Those complaints include allegations of failure to close businesses ordered to close by Brown’s executive order, as well as failure to implement proper social distancing practices. Businesses ordered to close include indoor and outdoor shopping malls, barber shops and hair salons, gyms and fitness studios, ski resorts, and theaters. Individuals must maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet from any person who is not a member of their immediate household. The governor’s order also prohibits businesses and nonprofits from work in offices whenever telework or work-at-home options are available.

Researchers estimated that Oregon’s aggressive social distancing measures have prevented as many as 18,000 cases of COVID-19 and 500 hospitalizations, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Oregon OSHA is responsible for ensuring businesses’ compliance with the governor’s directives, which includes handling complaints related to teleworking requirements. However, the agency considers it unlikely that it will issue a citation for violation if the employer appointed an individual to establish, implement, and enforce social distancing policies and made a reasonable effort to determine whether telework options are available.

Employers have responded to workers’ complaints by telephone or with written documentation. The formal introduction of systematic spot-checks is aimed at verifying what employers are telling the agency about their actions without requiring more resource-intensive formal worksite inspections. Oregon OSHA said it previously had conducted about two dozen spot-checks on a less formal basis.

The agency will conduct on-site inspections for a variety of reasons, especially if it determines an employer’s response to complaints may not be credible. Oregon OSHA continues to screen complaints, initiate inspections, and consider additional candidates for inspection.

Oregon OSHA will close a business in the event of a flagrant refusal to comply with the governor’s directives, but such an order must have approval from the administrator, deputy administrator, or Oregon OSHA policy manager.

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