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Democrats press OSHA head over COVID-19 enforcement

Sweatt notes one citation issued so far after nearly 5,000 virus-related complaints

OSHA head Loren E. Sweatt, left, testified along with John Howard, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health director.
OSHA head Loren E. Sweatt, left, testified along with John Howard, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health director. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/POOL)

The partisan divide over how to ensure workplace safety surfaced repeatedly Thursday as Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee questioned the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the agency’s response to the pandemic.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., put Labor Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren E. Sweatt on the spot when she asked how many of the nearly 5,000 COVID-19 related complaints received so far by OSHA have ended in enforcement action.

“At this point, we’ve issued one citation under an existing standard, and I would note that we still have six months to complete any investigation or enforcement action,” Sweatt replied. “I think relying on looking at citations is maybe not the best parameter.”

Rather than enforcement, the Trump administration has relied on guidance to employers as the first line of defense in promoting workplace safety, Sweatt said, pointing to detailed best practice guides for health care, meatpacking, construction and other sectors.

“I do believe that this approach has been effective,” Sweatt said in response to a question from Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the ranking member.

Foxx expressed support for the administration approach and dismissed Democrats’ charge that OSHA has been “missing in action” as thousands of workers have fallen ill from coronavirus.

“One of our colleagues earlier said that the absence of the rules that the Democrats want means that there’s nobody out there protecting the health and safety of workers,” Foxx said. “It is an abysmal misunderstanding of how the private workplace operates, and that is that every employer wants his or her workers kept safe. They are their most valuable assets.”

Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, expressed a very different view of employer responsibility in her opening statement.

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that this is largely a tragedy inflicted on our nation’s essential workers,” Adams said. “People who don’t have a choice on whether they have to go to work. Many of those on the front lines are low-income workers and disproportionately people of color who don’t have the luxury of teleworking from home.”

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., reminded Sweatt that some 300 health care workers have died of COVID-19 related illness during the pandemic. And three-quarters of OSHA inspections over the relevant period had been triggered by fatalities, he said.

“To put it bluntly, OSHA is stepping in only once someone has died,” Levin said. “Every day I get calls from workers who are terrified that they will become sick in their workplaces. Many worry not for their own lives, but for the lives of sick or elderly family members they reside with and support.”

“I have said before, OSHA has existing standards to address a variety of aspects of this virus, and we are enforcing where we find failure to comply,” Sweatt said.

“Ma’am, you’ve issued one citation in the greatest crisis. You say you are acting proactively, but in fact, what you are doing is the definition of reactive,” Levin said.

Levin also criticized OSHA for its decision not to issue an emergency temporary standard on infectious disease control. The AFL-CIO has filed a petition in federal court seeking an order forcing the Labor Department to issue such a standard, but Sweatt, citing pending litigation, refused to discuss the issue.

“If your agency inspects workplaces only after a worker has died, you are not preventing worker infections,” Levin said.

Rep. Robert C. Scott, committee chairman, also sought to highlight the department’s enforcement record by questioning Sweatt about its handling of whistleblower complaints brought by workers claiming retaliation.

In earlier questioning, Sweatt had defended Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia’s stance on whistleblowers, citing his April 9 declaration that retaliation “would not be tolerated,” and she said that OSHA investigators had pursued almost 2,000 COVID-19 complaints.

“We have seen success with reinstatement of whistleblowers, we have seen letters of reprimand removed, and we have seen actual policy changes by businesses to ensure that workers have the right to express concerns about their safety and health in the workplace,” Sweatt said.

Scott was not satisfied.

“They shouldn’t have been fired to begin with,” Scott said. “How many businesses have been sanctioned?”

“At this juncture, I don’t believe we have issued any sanctions, per se,” Sweatt replied. “We have seen reinstatement and back pay and one of the more important issues is the change of approach by some of these businesses about how they address safety and health.”

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