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U.S. workplace safety enforcer failed during COVID-19, watchdog says

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House investigates COVID in meatpacking plant... 00:36

The nation's enforcer of safety in the workplace hasn't done enough to protect workers during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a watchdog report released Tuesday. 

During six months since the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 last year, inspections by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the agency that regulates workplace safety, dropped by half — even as safety complaints to the agency increased by 15%, according to a report by the U.S. Labor Department's Office of the Inspector General.

OSHA initially made this change to protect its own workforce — but eliminating in-person inspections means it's likely that many workplace violations were overlooked, "placing employees' safety at greater risk," the report found.

"Given the increase in complaints, OSHA's reduction in total inspections, and its significant reduction in onsite inspections, there is an increased risk that OSHA has not been providing the level of protection that workers need at various job sites," the report said.

Over the nine-month period covered in the report, OSHA received more than 23,000 complaints about workplace hazards, of which nearly half were related to COVID-19. That's an increase of 15% from the time period of one year ago. Over the same period, the agency conducted just 13,000 inspections, half the number from the year before.

The Labor Department watchdog also questioned whether OSHA was lax in punishing unsafe workplaces. From February to October, the agency issued less than 300 violations related to COVID-19. At the same time, state workplace safety agencies in just 22 states found more than five times as many COVID-19 violations, the report noted.

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The figures are concerning because workplaces — including medical facilities, nursing homes and meat processing plants — have been key spreaders of the virus.

The inspector also called out OSHA for not creating stronger workplace safety rules during the pandemic. The agency issued guidance for employers to follow, but "guidance is not enforceable like rules or standards would be," the report noted.

The watchdog's findings echo criticism of OSHA from leading workers' rights groups. Marc Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said "OSHA was asleep at the switch," while AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka slammed the agency in October as "absent." 

The AFL-CIO, among other organizations, asked OSHA to issue an emergency standard and later sued the agency, but both efforts were rebuffed.

But OSHA is currently developing an emergency safety standard under an executive order from President Joe Biden. As the watchdog report notes, "the agency is already working to launch a national program to focus OSHA enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 on violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk."

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