- A national worker safety organization called out the federal government yesterday for not protecting workers from the spread of COVID-19 on the job, and demanded OSHA implement an emergency temporary standard to combat the problem.
- “The sad truth is that during the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA and our federal government has failed us,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, on a Zoom call with reporters where she unveiled an eight-part agenda to keep workers safe. “It has failed to reduce risk, failed to protect workers and failed to stop the spread of a deadly disease.”
- U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said during the call that he supported the agenda, while lambasting OSHA under former President Donald Trump. “Our country has completely failed our workers,” Levin said. “During the whole time of COVID, the Trump administration refused to have OSHA issue enforceable standards. ... They took no action. People have been exposed unnecessarily.”
The call came just four days after OSHA, under President Joe Biden’s new administration, issued clarified guidance to combat COVID-19 in the workplace. The president also directed the agency to reconsider issuing an emergency temporary standard, which would provide uniform, enforceable mandates for all workplaces nationally, and if it decides to do so, to implement it by March 15.
During yesterday's call, two construction workers speaking Spanish described conditions on their jobsites, including unhygienic restrooms and a lack of personal protective equipment, which they said had exposed them to risks from COVID-19. They claimed they had little recourse to report violations or protect themselves without fear of reprisal.
“Our employer lied to us about infections in the workplace,” said Daisy Cruz, a former construction worker in Nashville, according to a translated statement provided by COSH. “I saw my co-worker pass out at work, and a week later I was showing symptoms and ended up hospitalized for three months. If we’re going to stop the spread of this terrible disease, we need testing and tracking at our workplaces, and priority access to vaccines for frontline workers.”
Marcos Vasquez, a day laborer in Houston, said his employer did not provide masks or gloves, that bathrooms were unhygienic and lacked soap and water, social distancing was not enforced and that in his experience, OSHA inspectors who came to jobsites rarely spoke Spanish.
“They put us at risk,” he said via a translator. “Workers need for OSHA to do their job to protect workers. There should be inspectors to come and inspect construction sites who speak Spanish, so we are able to understand each other and for them to understand us.”
Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs at the Associated General Contractors of America, said that construction firms require PPE on jobsites, and that the industry’s COVID-19 record speaks for itself.
“Wherever legitimate, validated studies based on contact tracing have taken place, such as in New York, officials have concluded that there is almost no occupational transmission of coronavirus within the construction industry,” Turmail wrote in an email to Construction Dive. “This is largely thanks to the great lengths the construction industry has gone through to change work practices, scheduling and PPE requirements to protect workers and local communities.”
A lack of data
Since the beginning of the pandemic nearly a year ago, a lack of uniform reporting practices and contact tracing standards in the workplace at the national level has hamstrung efforts to accurately capture data on workplace spread.
For example, a recent analysis by the Sacramento Bee newspaper found that from the start of the pandemic through mid-December, California employers reported only 1,600 serious worker illnesses or deaths to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA.
The state agency's inspectors determined that 779 of those serious or deadly infections – about half – were contracted in the workplace. But the overall number accounts for a questionably miniscule fraction of the 3.2 million people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in California, and less than 2% of the more than 41,000 who have died from it.
Martinez said that COVID-19 numbers in the workplace have been significantly undercounted nationally, and that any forthcoming ETS should include a reporting and tracing component.
“In the U.S., more than 400,000 people are now dead from COVID-19, and we don't even know how many are frontline workers who were exposed on the job to this deadly virus,” said Martinez. “If we were able to implement something like that at the national level, we would have a lot more data to allow us to track and trace the spread.”
Another issue has been determining whether a worker who tests positive for COVID-19 contracted the disease at work. Business groups have ducked the issue by saying they can’t control what their workers do once they leave the job, and that worker infections are due to community spread, rather than from the workplace.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of COSH with Martinez, said any forthcoming ETS needs to address that disconnect. “Making sure that there’s stronger record keeping in the standard is going to be essential, and having the presumption that if somebody becomes sick, that it is related to work so you can keep track of that,” she said.
This story was updated to include comments from Marcy Goldstein-Gelb.