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April 17, 2020
OSHA refocuses COVID-19 enforcement efforts

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released an interim response plan refocusing enforcement resources to handle coronavirus-related complaints, referrals, and severe illness reports.

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The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease, was first identified in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019.

OSHA’s enforcement directorate instructed area offices to prioritize inspections at emergency medical centers, emergency response facilities, and hospitals, where workers have high- and very high-exposure-risk jobs.

The agency has received complaints related to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators, gloves, and gowns; concerns about a lack of training on appropriate standards; and reports of possible COVID-19 illnesses in the workplace. Area offices will investigate complaints, referrals, and employer-reported fatalities and hospitalizations to identify potentially hazardous occupational exposures and ensure that employers take prompt actions to mitigate hazards and protect employees.

The enforcement directorate has instructed area offices to process complaints from nonhealthcare and nonemergency response establishments using the agency’s nonformal complaint and referral procedures.

“Today’s guidance outlines commonsense procedures for investigating complaints related to the coronavirus, while also ensuring the safety of workers, employers, and inspectors,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt said in an agency statement.

Agency guidance for area offices specifies that:

  • Fatalities and imminent danger exposures related to COVID-19 will be prioritized for inspections, with particular attention given to healthcare organizations and first responders;
  • Formal complaints alleging SARS-CoV-2 exposure regarding employees who are engaged in medium- or lower-exposure-risk tasks, such as billing clerks, will not normally result in an on-site inspection;
  • Most cases of employer-reported hospitalizations will be handled using the rapid response investigation (RRI) procedures;
  • Area offices should document the status and condition of work operations, attempting to determine the likelihood of exposure to SARS-CoV-2; and
  • Field personnel should inform workers requesting inspections, complaining of COVID-19 exposure, or reporting illnesses of the protections from employer retaliation under relevant whistleblower statutes.

The interim response plan included a sample employer letter for use following COVID-19 complaints. The letter informs the employer that if the agency does not receive a timely response indicating that appropriate action has been taken or that no hazard exists and why, OSHA may conduct a workplace inspection.

The enforcement directorate informed agency compliance safety and health 0fficers (CSHOs) that they may find violations of the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to protect workers from recognized safety and health hazards. SARS-CoV-2 is a recognized health hazard. CSHOs also may finds violations of recordkeeping and reporting, personal protective equipment (PPE), eye and face protection, respiratory protection, sanitation, and accident prevention sign and tag requirements, as well as rules on access to employee exposure and medical records.

The enforcement directorate stated that violations would likely be cited as serious.

The agency reminded area offices that the bloodborne pathogens standard covering exposures to humans and other potentially infectious materials does not apply to respiratory secretions.

Under the interim response plan, area offices must inform the Directorate of Enforcement Programs of all proposed citations and federal agency notices.

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