OSHA infectious disease standards, sidelined in 2017, would have saved some workers from COVID-19

Protecting American workers during the coronavirus pandemic has largely proceeded from a flurry of ad hoc, government guidelines in reaction to the evolving situation.

But whether federal, state or local guidelines, the government recommendations are not enforceable as laws, and can’t be regulated as such.

An investigative report by Reveal from the Center of Investigative Reporting examined why the U.S. lacks mandated worker protections designed for situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The only government-mandated public health protection in place for American workers was created in 1991 to deal with bloodborne pathogens like HIV and hepatitis.

Following the H1N1 flu pandemic a decade ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) started the process of making infectious disease standards in the workplace. The process proceeded slowly amid industry pushback and lost steam in 2017, when it was sidelined to OSHA’s long-term agenda.

The fallout from that regulatory failure is being felt today by scores of workers in industries now dubbed essential during the coronavirus pandemic. In early April, for example, Washington state’s Department of Transportation announced the death of one of its ferry ticket sellers from COVID-19 complications. Washington state doesn’t require all ferry workers to wear gloves and doesn’t require any of its employees to wear masks, according to Reveal.

Angelo Cucuzza, a former American Airlines employee who is now a senior staffer at the Transport Workers Union, told the publication that without a mandate it’s unlikely that most employers will voluntarily protect their workers.

Meanwhile, complaints that employers aren’t following government guidance have poured into OSHA’s office. But because federal guidance is not a legal mandate, the agency has little ability to enforce compliance, according to Reveal.

“We have received a number of complaints every day for the past several weeks about employers failing to follow the guidance,” according to an OSHA email obtained by Reveal. “As an organization, all OSHA can do is contact an employer and send an advisory letter outlining the recommended protective measures.”

“As you know, the (Center for Disease Control) has issued guidance to all of us to protect the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and other protective measures such as hand washing and use of hand sanitizers in some instances,” the supervisor wrote.

The inability of OSHA to regulate and enforce workplace standards is deeply frustrating for worker advocates.

“There is no mandate to protect workers anywhere,” Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA official who is now the worker health and safety program director for the National Employment Law Project, told Reveal. “There could have been a standard. No one realizes how weak worker safety protections really are.”

Emery Reddy is committed to guiding our clients through this crisis. Call us if you’ve been exposed to the virus at work, have complications following exposure, have been terminated illegally or have any other coronavirus-related employment questions. You won’t get better advice.

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