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Federal and state OSHAs overrun with COVID-19 complaints


Federal and state agencies have seen a large influx of workplace safety complaints related to the COVID-19 outbreak, and experts urge employers to create exposure control plans in case an agency comes knocking. Unlike the flu and common cold, COVID-19 is considered a recordable illness by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“This is the busiest we’ve ever been,” said Eric Conn, founding partner of Washington-based law firm Conn Maciel Carey LLP, who advises clients on matters relating to Occupational Safety and Health Act compliance. At the start of the outbreak, he said, he and his colleagues were working around the clock helping employers respond to notices from OSHA alleging coronavirus-related hazards.

“(Clients) were getting essentially identical complaints from different offices all over the country,” said Mr. Conn. But the federal agency is fielding so many complaints that last week it stopped sending letters requiring a response and instead began sending letters notifying employers about a complaint and directing them to agency guidance and additional resources on how to address COVID-19 risk, he said.

OSHA has received thousands of COVID-19-related inquiries, said a spokeswoman with the agency, and the administration is using a “risk-based approach to assess and prioritize” its field work at this time, she said. 

OSHA did not respond to requests for comment regarding its coronavirus-related complaints.

National Nurses United announced in a statement March 27 that it has filed 125 complaints with OSHA offices in 16 states, and several workers rights groups have released statements that they have also filed coronavirus-related complaints with OSHA and state health and safety agencies.

Oregon OSHA, which averages a little more than 2,000 complaints a year, received 1,300 complaints in just a week related to COVID-19, with workplace safety reports coming from a variety of industries.

“We are screening the complaints as quickly as we can, and we do expect to be conducting inspections this week,” said a spokesman for the agency.

Michigan’s OSHA received about 900 complaints during the month of March, about 800 of which were related to COVID-19 or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay home executive order. According to MIOSHA, more than a quarter of complaints came from the manufacturing sector, with 19% attributed to health care and housing assistance, 9% to transportation and warehousing, and 8% to retail.

New Mexico has also seen an increase in complaints. Typically, the state’s OSHA bureau receives about 600 complaints a year, but in the past 10 days, the agency received nearly 50 complaints, the majority of which were related to COVID-19.

“Of course, there is an increase in complaints,” said a spokeswoman for Nevada OSHA. “Workplace safety related to COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind that is working in areas deemed ‘essential’ from health care to manufacturing to warehousing.”

A spokesman for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, commonly known as Cal/OSHA, said the agency could not currently provide data about its complaints, but said that it is continuing to respond to “every complaint it receives to verify its validity.”

The agency appears to be sending out traditional letters requesting a response within five working days Kaiser Foundation Hospitals received a notice from Cal/OSHA dated March 19 stating that the agency had received complaints from workers about a lack of personal protective equipment and infection controls to prevent acquisition of COVID-19 at more than a half-dozen hospital locations.

A spokesman for Minnesota’s OSHA said the state doesn’t have specific numbers of COVID 19-related complaints available at this time but said the agency has doubled its staff for responding to requests for information and assistance due to the increased volume of calls from workers and employers during the pandemic. Iowa OSHA’s voicemail said that due to high volume of COVID 19-related complaints that the agency was unable to answer all calls.

Maryland’s OSHA received about 300 COVID-19 calls in the month of March, of which about 40% were health care-related, said a spokeswoman. So far, the state has received 43 COVID-19 complaints, about 65% of which were health care-related, she said.

In North Carolina, the state’s OSHA has seen just a slight uptick in complaints so far, said a spokeswoman. However, as of Thursday, the state only had 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. A spokesman for Hawaii’s OSHA said the agency saw an increase in complaints from 19 in March 2019 to 23 in March 2020, but has been receiving an increase in calls seeking information on COVID-19.

Although federal OSHA may not be requiring responses to COVID-19 complaints, that shouldn’t make employers complacent, said Mr. Conn, noting that state plans are continuing to send out letters requiring a prompt and substantive response, and states such as Oregon have said they are investigating complaints. 

Employers should be developing a COVID-19 exposure control plan or response plan that collects together in one document a detailed description of everything the employer is doing to address the hazard, including an assessment of potential changes to personal protective equipment, administrative controls, workspace separation and staggered work shifts, Mr. Conn said.

“This is going to be very helpful for employees by showing them in a concise way all of the things you are doing … and it’s also a document that is a handy response” in the event that the company receives a letter from OSHA, he said.

More insurance and risk management news on the coronavirus crisis here