The Labor Department’s independent watchdog recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration consider issuing Covid-19-specific safety rules employers would be required to follow, saying that would better protect Americans from exposure to the coronavirus.
The recommendation adds weight to calls by President Joe Biden, other Democrats and labor unions for the agency to issue such emergency protections, which business groups and many Republicans oppose.
In a report released Tuesday, the department’s Inspector General said mandatory rules “could be of importance” because it’s extremely difficult for the agency to cite employers for safety risks without them.
If OSHA issued a Covid-19-specific emergency temporary standard, “employers would be legally obligated to comply with it,” the IG said, and OSHA inspectors “may not be hampered by a lengthy process” when it comes to proving a violation.
OSHA has already issued Covid-19 guidance under a January executive order from Biden and published numerous documents detailing ways that employers can protect their workers from exposure. But the guidelines are not enforceable and do not require companies to comply.
OSHA inspectors in area offices across the country told the IG that a coronavirus-specific safety standard would be helpful to identify safety hazards during Covid-19-related inspections and make it easier to issue citations.
“Guidance in and of itself cannot operate in lieu of an [emergency temporary standard] as an enforcement tool,” the IG report said.
The Trump administration took the position that a Covid-19-specific safety standard wasn’t necessary because the agency could use other safety rules, like its requirements to provide workers personal protective equipment, to police businesses during the pandemic.
Biden took a different approach with his executive order, which directed the agency to decide by mid-March whether it was necessary for OSHA to issue an emergency standard.
The agency, currently being led by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Frederick, released stricter guidelines in January for employers on how to protect their workers from the coronavirus.
But so far, there hasn’t been any sign of whether OSHA will issue a safety rule or simply release more non-mandatory safety recommendations for workplaces, although Frederick has said that the January guidance was “not going to be the last step in the process” of responding to Biden’s order.
The IG’s findings could help the Biden administration justify the emergency rulemaking, which Republicans and the business community have opposed, warning it could increase liability and costs for already-struggling businesses.
However, the IG’s audit Tuesday found that the Trump administration’s business-friendly approach at OSHA did not provide the level of protection workers needed during the coronavirus pandemic and left workers’ safety at increased risk.
The report noted that while OSHA has received an influx of safety complaints during the pandemic, the agency suspended most of its on-site safety inspections last year, instead opting for informal inspections that typically result in a phone call to the facility, putting employee’s safety at greater risk.
“While remote inspections might help mitigate potential transmission of Covid-19, a reduction of on-site inspections could result in more work-site accidents, injuries, deaths or employee illnesses,” the IG report said.