May 28, 2020

Warren, Colleagues Call for Inspector General Audit of OSHA's Inadequate Enforcement Amid Growing Worker Illnesses and Deaths During COVID-19 Pandemic

Despite Heightened Risk for Workers, Agency Has Drastically Reduced Investigation and Enforcement Activities During Crisis

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, along with Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), wrote to the Department of Labor's (DOL) Office of Inspector General requesting an audit of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) handling of inspections and citations during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and the DOL's failure to issue an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to address the heightened risks for frontline workers during the pandemic.

"We are writing to seek an audit of OSHA's response to the pandemic, including an explanation for why citation and inspection numbers have dropped so dramatically during this national emergency, and whether DOL's refusal to issue an ETS is not in compliance with the law," the senators wrote. "It is beyond dispute that coronavirus constitutes a new hazard which poses grave danger to employees, and that current safety standards are inadequate to protect workers from this hazard."

Since President Trump's March 13, 2020 declaration of a national emergency, the number of OSHA-issued citations has dropped by nearly 70%, and the inspection rate has also dropped dramatically. During this same period, thousands of essential workers have become sick, and many have died after being exposed to coronavirus at their workplaces.

Despite the growing numbers of sick and deceased essential workers, DOL has refused to issue an ETS to create enforceable workplace safety standards during the pandemic, and OSHA has largely abdicated its investigation and enforcement responsibilities even for existing standards. As of May 18, OSHA has only opened 310 COVID-19-related inspections, despite the agency receiving more than 3,990 COVID-19-related complaints. Furthermore, OSHA inspections dropped from on average 217 a day to 60 a day after the national emergency declaration, and the number of OSHA citations has decreased by nearly 70% compared with the prior two years.

The senators requested that the DOL Inspector General conduct an audit of OSHA's investigations and citations during the coronavirus public health emergency, and whether OSHA's failure to issue an ETS is out of compliance with its statutory duty under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The Senators noted that DOL declined to issue an ETS under the rationale that it provided no added benefit for workers, and was only necessary if employers were not following minimum levels of workplace safety needed to protect workers. "OSHA's rationale is plainly faulty," the senators wrote. "There is no evidence that employers are sufficiently protecting workers-in fact, there is an abundance of evidence to the contrary. State and local governments have had to close essential businesses after they have failed to prevent and mitigate coronavirus outbreaks among employees."

"Due to our grave concerns that OSHA is failing to meet its core mission of protecting worker health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, and failing to meet legal requirements to adopt an ETS to prevent additional, unnecessary worker illnesses and deaths, we ask that you open an audit of OSHA's actions and decisions during the pandemic expeditiously," the senators continued.

Last month, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) proposed an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, which requests health and safety protections for essential workers, including the issuance of an OSHA ETS. Senator Warren is also a co-sponsor of Senators Baldwin's and Duckworth's Every Worker Protection Act, which compels OHSA to issue an ETS covering all essential workers.