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OSHA Complaints Show the Morbid Dangers Healthcare Workers Face During Covid

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During the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, with thousands dying every day, America relied on a select few essential workers to keep society running, like postal workers, grocery workers and meat packers—all industries that have seen, together, hundreds of Covid-related deaths among workers. Chief among them are nurses, on the front lines of the pandemic, who have put their lives on the line to intubate disease victims and provide lifesaving medical care. Since the pandemic began, over 500 healthcare workers in the United States have died from the virus.

But these workers who we rely on so deeply—dubbed “warriors” by President Donald Trump and “heroes” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—continue to work under hostile management and in dangerous workplaces that make the disease even more contagious and deadly.

That’s according to a dataset and interactive map recently released by Strikewave, a newsletter of original reporting and analysis for the U.S. labor movement. The data show at least 21,510 Covid-related Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaints since the start of the pandemic. It’s unknown exactly how many more complaints than usual have been filed, as OSHA complaints are relatively confidential. But it’s clear that they are surging.

Common in the complaints are allegations of managerial neglect, carelessness and abuse.

And while we may like to think that bad management is the exclusive territory of greedy corporations, the complaints show how healthcare workers, some of them working for nominally non-profit hospitals, have been failed by their employers even as they perform dangerous and essential work.

At Ascension Genesys Hospital in Grand Blanc, Michigan, a suburb of Flint, several OSHA complaints filed at the end of March alleged widespread shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and threats from management.

Carolyn Clemons, a registered nurse working in Genesys Hospital’s Covid-19 intensive care unit and member of Teamsters Local 332, said that in late March, when cases were skyrocketing, nurses who wore masks outside of patient rooms were threatened with disciplinary actions and firings. In hallways and offices, where nurses worked closely together, managers enforced a no-mask policy into April, according to Clemons. Ironically, some of the managers who threatened mask-wearing employees were the same who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

“There was not good communication,” Clemons said. “We felt a lack of respect for what we do.”

At the height of the pandemic, management kept stockpiles of PPE under lock and key in their offices while telling nurses to wear garbage bags instead, according to Kimberly Cox, a registered nurse and the Chief Steward of Teamsters 332. Even now, she says, much of that equipment remains unused.

Nurses at the hospital have tested positive. According to Cox, however, Genesys has so far refused to either provide on-site tests for nurses or inform employees of the number of positive or assumed cases among staff, despite repeated union requests. Nurses, some of them exhausted by persistent coughs and high fevers, were told to drive to the next hospital over.

There are complaints from hospitals across the Ascension health system.

One, filed on April 28 at Ascension St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, claimed management failed to implement social distancing practices “properly or effectively” and that workers were not informed when they were exposed to patients and coworkers with confirmed cases of Covid-19. At that point there were almost 3,000 Covid-19 cases in Milwaukee and more than 150 deaths.

There have been more than 15 such complaints against the health system, including the ones against Genesys and St. Francis, and there are likely more (detailed information about OSHA complaints is only available for “closed” cases, suggesting there could be several ongoing but confidential complaints). Additionally, Teamsters Local 332 has filed more than 100 grievances with the hospital.

Ascension, which operates as a non-profit out of St. Louis, Missouri, cut its CEO a $13.6 million paycheck in 2017, the last year on record. It also operates a venture capital fund, Ascension Ventures, which manages more than $800 million, and an investment advisory fund, Ascension Investment Management, which is responsible for $38.7 billion in corporate money.

The health system, which has been fined nearly $70 million for various regulatory violations over the past decade, received more than $400 million in federal funding in May. Genesys itself received more than $20 million. The funding, like all federal stimulus so far, comes with no stipulations regarding employee treatment.

Ascension Health did not respond to a request for comment.

These kinds of complaints can be seen across the industry. At publicly-traded HCA Healthcare, one of the wealthiest hospital chains in the country, complaints are, in some cases, nearly identical to those lodged against Ascension: N95 masks locked away by management, a total lack of protective equipment for housekeepers and food service workers, and prohibitions on mask-wearing. One complaint even alleged that nurses were directed to clean their masks with household cleaning wipes, return them to a bag, and then reuse those masks. In total, workers in the HCA network lodged at least 35 complaints, almost twice as many as Ascension received.

HCA paid its CEO more than $26 million in 2019 and has made more than $7 billion over the past two years. The chain received $1 billion in federal pandemic aid, also without stipulation. Weeks later, nurses at HCA claimed the company threatened them with mass firings unless they agreed to wage freezes.

These OSHA complaints are just a few of the thousands filed, all of which show how so-called essential workers have been treated as disposable. There are more than 3 million Covid-19 cases in the United States, but many essential workers are already losing meager hazard pay raises. As of April, at least 135,000 health care practitioners who work in hospitals had lost their jobs, including many nurses.

It’s a racial justice issue as well. In New York City, 75% percent of frontline workers are people of color. And Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist studying Black healthcare workers, found that those workers are more likely to work at hospitals in the same impoverished Black communities that have been devastated by the coronavirus.

Both the pandemic and the protests sweeping the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd carry the same lesson: our brutal status quo has long been untenable for many Americans, particularly the poor and non-white.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nick Vachon is an In These Times editorial intern.


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7 Best Practices to Accelerate Employee Safety in the Workplace

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Research has shown there’s a direct link between worker productivity and workplace health and safety. These findings should be enough to motivate employers to accelerate the safety of all staff members in the workplace, and for many businesses, they have been. 

“Safety culture” is a phrase often repeated, and it refers to the concept of making high standards of occupational health and safety a core company value. By fostering such a culture, employees are not only physically protected; they feel like valued team members and are empowered to take initiative. As the workers are strengthened, so too is the organization – and vice versa.

The seven best practices listed below need to be an intrinsic part of a business owner’s vision. If your employer doesn’t actively strive to achieve them, the Occupational Safety and Administration (OSHA) recommends you bring the issue to their attention. If no resolution is reached, you can file a confidential complaint with the Administration. 

Take a closer look at the treatment you should be getting, and the conditions you’re within your rights to expect.

Inclusion in a Safety Task Force

As employees, you must be involved in health and safety initiatives at all stages. This creates a strong foundation, and creating a dedicated task force is a crucial element of this. 

You’ll need time to meet, plan, and execute activities during the workday rather than after hours – none of your own time or wages may be sacrificed. If you take on additional responsibilities as a result of being included in such a task force, you must be properly remunerated.

Engagement in Discussions 

As each business is different, the requirements for an effective health and safety program also vary. The OSHA provides several helpful resources on how to assess and maintain safety standards in diverse work environments. 

In discussions on how to maintain health and safety, staff should be treated as equals to executives, with as much to contribute to the conversation. After all, you have front-line experience of work circumstances and conditions. The number of employees, their various tasks, and the equipment used must all be considered. As part of best practice, these circumstances will be regularly reviewed.

Involvement in Developing Protocols

The discussions the worker-centric task force is involved in should result in the development of several protocols. Safety, inspection, training, and recording procedures, among others, would be developed by this team, and be reexamined on a scheduled basis. 

Any new practices or apparatus must be factored in, and protocols appropriately expanded or amended. The protocols will stipulate how frequently you receive training, and what specific issues are covered.

Regular Training Sessions

New employees must receive comprehensive training as part of their induction, along with further instruction when any new policies or procedures are introduced. Thereafter, sessions can be scheduled at regular intervals and assessments conducted to verify that your knowledge and skills are up to date.

Frequent Inspections of Working Conditions

The condition of all equipment and work environments, including offices, factory floors and outside areas, must be checked according to a list of requirements. In addition, you should be assessed according to KPAs (key performance areas) as developed in taskforce discussions. You know how to do your job well and giving this input in the discussions means you’ll know what to expect in the inspections too.

Proper Maintenance of Records

Meticulous records are essential in the case of injuries (or illness, as the current COVID-19 pandemic illustrates) that result in workman’s compensation claims. If you have a rightful claim, the proper documentation will make it easier for you to access your payout. In addition, your employer will require valid, in-date compensation insurance so that you are properly covered.

Records are also helpful in identifying positive or negative trends regarding health and safety standards and culture, so they can help prevent future incidents. Best practice recommendations are to keep detailed records that are easy to access and understand, and to review them at regular intervals.

Investigation of All Incidents

If something goes wrong in the workplace a thorough investigation needs to be conducted. By reviewing what happened, companies can take steps to avoid recurrences. This will accelerate your safety, and any employees who were on the scene or have knowledge of the situation must be consulted. 

You should also see clear evidence that changes have been made, to guard against the incident happening again. Executives are required to act – and if they don’t, you can remind them to.

About the Author: With a passion for writing, Megan is a freelance writer focusing on business, workplace compliance, and GRC topics. When she’s not typing away at her keyboard, Meg loves playing Broadway scores on the piano and enjoys roasting her own coffee.


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Vague testing guidance hinders business reopenings

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Companies can require diagnostic coronavirus tests and temperature checks but the Trump administration hasn’t said when or how often to test.

Gaps in federal guidelines and ongoing fears about contaminated workplaces are keeping businesses from reopening the way the White House envisioned a month ago, when it shifted its pandemic message to an economic revival.

The Trump administration has said businesses can make diagnostic coronavirus tests and temperature checks a condition for returning to work. But it hasn’t answered key questions like when or how often to test workers or whether there should be a blanket testing policy for job seekers.

Now, employers worried about a do-it-yourself approach are asking Congress to give them broad legal protections in case workers or customers get Covid-19. And they’re bracing for the added cost of testing, hiring companies like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics to repeatedly screen their employees.

Critics blame the Trump administration for deferring too much decision-making to states and localities and leaving businesses hanging in its eagerness to reboot the economy.

“We’ve got different people in different places doing different things because there is no universal plan, no comprehensive plan to guide people, and I think that to me is very unacceptable,” said Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

The government’s top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, last week warned about the possibility of new hot spots if businesses don’t heed the existing recommendations and instead rush to reopen.

“We are going to see upticks in cases even in the best circumstances,” Fauci said on CNN. “Don’t start leapfrogging over some of the recommendations and the guidelines because that’s really tempting fate and asking for trouble.”

The testing picture is complicated by the fact that several federal agencies provide guidance on business planning during the pandemic, though their enforcement powers are limited.

No enforceable rules

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which polices workplace discrimination, said in April that employers can require workers to be tested, wear masks and have their temperatures checked as a condition of employment without running afoul of federal discrimination and disability law.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversees worker safety, often relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for technical expertise. But OSHA hasn’t issued a mandatory workplace safety standard for Covid-19, so whatever guidelines it and the CDC develop are largely unenforceable.

The agencies and others have moved to set guardrails for businesses coming back from lockdowns. New CDC guidelines for office buildings suggest employers step up disinfection of work spaces, promote distancing and screen for Covid-19 symptoms. FEMA separately announced the government will distribute non-contact infrared thermometers to support workplaces “with a high degree of person-to-person interaction.”

The landscape makes it possible for employers to make Covid-19 screening or testing a condition of employment, meaning they could delay a worker’s start date or withdraw a job offer if someone is shown to have symptoms, said Beth Alcalde, an attorney at the law firm Akerman LLP. However, the EEOC has cautioned an employer must screen all potential employees applying for the same job.

Beyond the evolving rules is the question of whether there are enough tests to even open critical segments of the economy. Experts including Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, have warned more than 900,000 daily tests are needed to safely reopen the country — more than double the amount being conducted today. A lack of basic supplies like swabs that bedeviled earlier efforts to contain the virus could again prove to be a roadblock.

“It was inadequate testing that precipitated the national shutdown,” Jha told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last month. “We must not make the same mistakes again as we open up our nation.”

Even blanket testing won’t guarantee that a business is free of Covid-19. Diagnostic tests can prove unreliable and can miss an infection. And antibody tests, once promoted as a vital tool for safely reopening the economy, are meant to identify who has been exposed to the virus, not active cases. The CDC says antibody tests should not be used to make decisions about employees returning to work.

“There is no way to be 100 percent certain that we’re not going to have a virus in the workplace no matter what you do,” said Jay Wohlgemuth, Quest’s chief medical officer.

Lawmakers aware of the limitations are working to insulate companies from legal claims. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the GOP is working to provide Covid-19 liability protections to companies that are sued for failing to protect their workers and customers from the illness.

Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are asking for “targeted liability relief” for businesses that work to follow the government’s guidelines.

Employers worry “about potential [legal] exposure if they do something that falls short of securing the safety and health of their population,” Alcalde said.

The CDC largely has avoided making recommendations when employees should be tested for an active coronavirus infection. But the agency says employers shouldn’t require sick employees to submit to a test or to produce a doctor’s note to qualify for sick leave or return to work.

Though the agency has taken steps like recommending facility-wide testing in nursing care facilities, it doesn’t have any corresponding guidance for businesses on testing employees. CDC spokesperson Jason McDonald told POLITICO it is up to state or local health departments to provide specific guidance to businesses on testing.

“Testing is a complex issue, and right now CDC doesn’t have the establishment-wide guidance to give an employer who’s interested in doing testing,” John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said during a worker safety hearing last week. “We may be coming out with more guidance on that issue, but right now we don’t have enough information.”

Commercial laboratories LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics have started return-to-work services, such as employee symptom screening and testing for active or past coronavirus infections to help businesses bring workers back on-site.

Quest’s Wohlgemuth told POLITICO the frequency of how often workers are screened should hinge on factors like the rates of transmission in a given community and the characteristics of jobs.

“It’s very different to be in an office with distance than to be an ER doctor or to be in a meat packing facility,” Wohlgemuth said.

Attorneys predict businesses will pick up the cost of testing, as well as giving workers the necessary time and ensuring the results are confidential.

Privacy issues

Civil liberties groups like the ACLU caution that widespread testing could still raise a host of privacy issues that keep workers and job seekers away.

“Privacy is not a side issue here, but it’s actually a core part of making the response to Covid effective,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst on technology-related privacy and civil liberties issues at the ACLU. “If people don’t feel that their privacy is being protected they will resist screening programs that they feel might threaten them.”

The CDC in its reopening guidelines states that if implementing health checks, businesses should “conduct them safely and respectfully, and in accordance with any applicable privacy laws and regulations. Confidentiality should be respected.”

Stanley recently warned that companies should “skeptically scrutinize all such products and proposals, especially where they have implications for our privacy or other civil liberties.”

“We don’t want to wake up into a post-Covid world where companies, employers or others feel like they have a permanent free hand to start collecting physiological data about people,” he told POLITICO.

The EEOC stresses that any data about workers or potential employees obtained through medical examinations must be kept confidential.

Wohlgemuth said Quest has developed an informed consent process for businesses to use to ensure employees understand how their health data will be used by employers for infection-control purposes. No personal health information will be shared with employers unless it is needed to drive a health and safety decision, Wohlgemuth said. “Even then, it’s held very tightly and we have processes in place to make sure that the identity of the person is only known when absolutely necessary,” he added.

Former EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, now a partner at Morgan Lewis, said the privacy aspect “is really not overly burdensome.”

If an employer wants to keep a record of that medical information, Feldblum says they “just need to make sure that that information is not in that employee’s personnel record, and just kept separately, as a medical record.”

But Feldblum cautions that employers should keep in mind that they do have to try to accommodate those who have disability or other concerns with procedures like wearing face masks and, if necessary, provide an unpaid leave of absence.

Companies including Ford Motor Company announced recently that they would provide Covid-19 testing for employees showing symptoms at its plants in Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. The car manufacturer has recently shut down plants for cleaning after workers tested positive in Chicagoand Kansas City.

Casino companies MGM, Caesars Entertainment and Boyd Gaming also recently announced a Covid-19 testing policy for their employees.

The Culinary Workers Union, which represents thousands of workers at Las Vegas casinos and hotels, is pushing the Nevada Gaming Control Board and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to adopt their recommended public health guidelines for the industry that include testing employees for Covid-19.

But for all the precautions, employers won’t be able to make their employees take a vaccine for Covid-19 once one is ready.

The EEOC cautions that federal disability and anti-discrimination law bars such a requirement for a flu vaccine due to a worker’s potential medical conditions or religious beliefs.

“Employers should consider simply encouraging employees to get the influenza vaccine rather than requiring them to take it,” the agency recommends.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

About the Author: David Lim is a health care reporter at POLITICO focused on covering the policy, regulation and politics that affect the medical device industry and the Food and Drug Administration. Before joining POLITICO, David helped launch Industry Dive’s MedTech Dive and worked at Inside Washington Publishers’ FDA Week. A fan of the Mountain Goats, he enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and rock climbing in his spare time.


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The Miners Who Fought for Workplace Safety Have a Thing or Two to Teach OSHA Right Now

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In October 1993, Charles Patrick Hayes, or Pat, was working at a grain bin in Defuniak Springs, a small town in southern Alabama near Fairhope, where Pat was raised. Pat was knocking down corn from the walls of the silo when the crop caved off the sides and crushed him. Pat, just 19, suffocated to death. It took five hours to retrieve his body.

Pat’s father, Ron Hayes, quickly turned his grief into advocacy. A few months after Pat’s death, Hayes quit his job as an X-ray technician and manager of a clinical outpatient facility, and he founded a non-profit called the FIGHT Project, or Families In Grief Hold Together. For almost 30 years, Hayes traveled from Fairhope to Washington, D.C. (45 times by his count) pressuring legislators to improve federal worker safety regulations under the act, implemented in 1971, that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. According to Hayes, stricter enforcement of worker safety protocols may have saved his son’s life.

Although OSHA, which monitors most major employment sectors, including the agricultural, construction and service industries, has been criticized for lax regulations for almost 50 years, Covid-19 has brought worker safety back into the forefront of national news and rekindled the conversation around reform. If such reform is to happen, advocates say regulators can look for guidance from a conglomerate OSHA doesn’t monitor: the mining industry.

According to Tony Oppegard, an attorney who specializes in miner safety, the Mine Act is so much stronger than OSHA that “there’s no comparison.” Enacted in 1969, the inherent dangers in mining meant stricter regulations were implemented from the get go.

The Mine Act made mining much safer, and fatalities continue to decrease, with 24 on-the-job fatalities in 2019. While the decrease might be related to a loss of jobs—the coal industry has flatlined in recent years—experts say it’s also related to regulations in the Mine Act: For example, underground mines have to be inspected, at minimum, four times a year.

Meanwhile, OSHA guidelines have no requirement for the minimum number of inspections. That means a lot of businesses can essentially go unregulated. Along with a lack of inspections, there’s a lack of inspectors. While mines have about one inspector for every 50 miners, OSHA has just one inspector for every 79,000 workers. According to data compiled by the AFL-CIO, over 3.5 million injuries were reported to OSHA in 2017. In 2018, an average of 275 laborers died each day from workplace-related illnesses or injuries.

One of the biggest differences in these fatality numbers may also be a workplace right unique to the Mine Act: the broad right to refuse unsafe work.

Take Charles Howard. Howard worked in a number of underground coal mines around his home of Letcher County, Ky. since he was 18 years old. While Howard knew mining was dangerous work, as he grew older, he observed his supervisors making unsafe decisions to get the coal out cheaper and quicker, increasing the likelihood of injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Howard himself suffered multiple injuries while underground including a torn rotator cuff, a broken back, a traumatic brain injury and black lung—a fatal respiratory disease unique to coal miners.

So, between 1989 and when Howard retired in 2014, he fought hard for miner protections on the job site. This was easier under the Mine Act than OSHA because of a section called 105(c) which allows workers to refuse work they consider unsafe without getting fired—and quick temporary reinstatement pending a full investigation and hearing. Under 105(c), when one of Howard’s former employers, the Cumberland River Coal Company, tried to unlawfully fire him twice, Howard filed federal complaints with the help of Oppegard. After he filed, a federal review commission permanently reinstated Howard in his old job.

Under OSHA, this right isn’t nearly as strong. In order to refuse work, an employee has to prove they faced imminent danger of serious injury or death. That’s difficult to do in jobs that contain regular hazards. For example, in farming, workers could face silo explosions or extreme summer heat. In construction, laborers could fall off roofs or scaffolding. But it’s notoriously difficult to place the onus of these accidents on the employer.

But the Mine Act isn’t perfect, and OSHA can also learn from its failures. For example, under the act, safety violations can only lead to misdemeanor charges, not criminal convictions. So mining violations often mean little to no jail time for operators. When the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, caused by a dust explosion, killed 29 West Virginia miners a decade ago, Don Blakenship, CEO of Massey Energy, spent just one year in prison.

According to Oppegard, a solution could be implementing an industrial manslaughter law under the Mine Act and OSHA, like one passed in Queensland, Australia. Now, if there’s criminal negligence in a mining death, Australian operators could receive 20 years in prison.

Howard, now 60 and retired, agrees that company management might feel more incentivized to protect workers if supervisors are personally responsible for injuries and illnesses on the job site. But, according to Howard, another problem is a lack of education around miner’s rights.

“They didn’t want me on the job because I stood up for my rights,” said Howard, who believes he was let go from multiple jobs because of his advocacy. “Other miners started saying, well we ain’t going to let them [the mining company] do that either.”

For Hayes, like Howard, one of the biggest problems with OSHA is not its scaffolding, but how the act has been implemented.

“I’ve always said OSHA is fair to business and workers both, but it’s been so mismanaged over the years,” Hayes said over the phone. “We’ve got to have a leader who knows what they’re doing.”

According to the AFL-CIO, under President Trump, a pro-business agenda means worker safety has been significantly deregulated since 2016, with budgets slashed and the number of OSHA inspectors at its lowest level in half a century.

Hayes, who recently suffered a series of strokes which he attributes to stress over reforming OSHA, is frustrated by the slow pace of change, but he’s not giving up. He has one wish for the legacy of his work: “I want to be remembered as the man who gave OSHA a heart.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer from Kentucky who has written for HuffPost, onEarth, Sierra and Vice.


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OSHA Needs A Prescription for Safety Now

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Kimberly Delbrune-Mitter, a cardiac nurse, cares deeply about her patients and remains steadfast in her desire to help them, even as COVID-19 spreads across America.

What plagues her about the new disease isn’t that she might encounter it. It’s the lack of guidance, vital information that would help her balance quality care and her own health.

Medical professionals looking to the Trump administration for leadership will hear nothing but a resounding silence.

Instead, people on the front lines have to fight for their own health and safety even while they care for their patients.

A group of labor unions, including the United Steelworkers (USW), last week sent Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a petition demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implement an emergency safety standard to protect health care workers, first responders and others at risk of contracting the virus on the job.

The unions and the workers they represent want OSHA to specify the types of equipment employers must provide and the procedures they must follow to keep workers safe.

For hospitals, this could mean providing doctors, nurses and others with the most advanced facemasks on the market. It could mean minimizing the number of people who enter a patient’s room, screening workers for sickness at the start of their shifts or providing staff members with a vaccine when one becomes available.

So far, they’ve received no response.

While the Trump administration fiddles, hundreds of health care workers already are quarantined because of possible exposure to COVID-19, and many others have questions about how to do their jobs without contracting the disease.

“Do we need to wear eye shields? Do we need hair caps? Do we need gowns?” asked Delbrune-Mitter, president of USW Local 9620, which represents about 500 nurses in New Jersey.

Right now, each hospital, clinic and doctor’s office is largely free to take whatever precautions it wants. At some hospitals, nurses cite a lack of personal protective equipment like facemasks and say their employers haven’t even told them how to identify patients who might have the disease.

If large numbers of health care workers get sick or quarantined, the whole treatment system could collapse.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) struck Toronto in 2003, health care professionals became the biggest victims, making up 45 percent of those infected. A doctor and two nurses died. The city’s hospitals were so poorly prepared for infection control that they became breeding grounds for the disease, the very places where most people contracted it.

Clearly communicated safety precautions for COVID-19 will prevent a similar catastrophe limiting medical personnel on the job at a time they’re crucially needed.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time health care workers had to lead OSHA to provide common-sense protections in the face of a deadly disease.

HIV struck seemingly out of nowhere more than 30 years ago, battering patients’ immune systems before killing them. Unsure how it spread and fearful of the future, health care workers risked their own lives to treat the victims.

Research soon showed that HIV is spread through an infected person’s blood. Health care workers risked infection when they accidentally got stuck by a needle or when a patient’s blood got into a cut or scrape. Other serious diseases like hepatitis B are spread the same way, and workers demanded that OSHA set standards so they would remain safe on the job.

OSHA implemented those measures, known as the bloodborne pathogens standard, in 1991 and revised them several years later.

Workers made this happen.

Among other provisions, the standard requires that needles be equipped with safety devices that cover or retract them immediately after use.

Employers must provide gloves and other personal protective equipment to workers, decontaminate surfaces any time they’re touched by blood or other fluids, and track accidental needle sticks. Needles and other sharp objects must be discarded in puncture-proof containers. These provisions protect patients as well as health care workers.

Some hospitals opposed the bloodborne pathogen rules because they didn’t want to shell out a few extra bucks to keep workers safe.

But the standard’s effectiveness cannot be denied.  Since it was implemented, HIV and hepatitis B infections among health care workers plummeted.

Even after OSHA imposed the standard, health care workers continued fighting to make their workplaces safer.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick in New Jersey, that meant looking for new ways to further reduce the accidental needle sticks that can transmit HIV and hepatitis.

Nurses represented by USW Local 4-200 tested various syringes, lancets and IV insertion tips, then began using the ones they considered least likely to cause accidental sticks. Between 2010 and 2014, the hospital reduced needlestick injuries by 70 percent, an achievement that won the nurses recognition in a national health care journal.

These kinds of safety measures are the result of workers’ and unions’ relentless fight for health and safety.

The USW and other unions began pressuring OSHA for an infectious disease standard long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

Their demand for infectious disease controls goes back years, amid outbreaks of other diseases, including SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 flu in 2009, that exposed the nation’s lack of readiness for epidemics.

OSHA’s top officials finally put an infectious disease standard on their to-do list. Then Donald Trump, an enemy of industry regulation and worker safety, took office. OSHA suddenly put infectious disease control on the back burner.

That delay now haunts the nation. The federal government and health care organizations are as poorly prepared for an epidemic as workers knew they’d be.

Delbrune-Mitter said the lack of clear safety direction from federal officials leads some staff members to mine TV and the internet for information.

“We don’t really know what’s true,” she said.

This article was originally printed in Our Future on March 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


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5 Steps For Creating A Safer Work Environment

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Labor unions, employee rights, fair wages, and America’s workforce are all hot topics this election season. While these issues are always important, an election year really works to bring these issues to the forefront of the minds of companies and politicians.

Regardless of which side of the political fence you sit on, we can all agree that employees deserve and need a safe work environment. It’s the company’s moral obligation and legal responsibility to provide a safe environment for all of its employees. But what’s the best way to do that?

Government data shows that in 2018, 2.8 million workers suffered from an injury at work, and a total of 5,250 workers actually died while on the job. That number means that an average of one hundred U.S. employees died each week while trying to earn an income. It’s unacceptable.

Despite OSHA’s (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) efforts, accidents are clearly still a regular occurrence in the workplace. It’s the employees’ right and the company’s responsibility to ensure a safe environment.

Here are five steps for creating a safer work environment.

Step One: Prioritize Safety Training

Most companies offer safety training right after hiring an employee. However, one-time training isn’t going to cut it. Regular safety training needs to be par for the course. Beyond that, consider periodic safety evaluations for both the individual employees and the company as a whole.

Moreover, safety is an ongoing attitude more than it is a one-time conversation. Companies must make safety a part of the daily discussion and habits.

Step Two: Don’t Overlook Spills and Tripping Hazards

More than twenty-five percent of all workplace injuries are a result of a trip, slip, or fall. So, it’s no shocker that one of the first things to improve when it comes to safety is tripping and slipping hazards.

Work to eliminate clutter and keep walk spaces free and open. If standing water is an issue inside or out, look into a floor drain or a traffic rated trench drain. Fix uneven flooring and repair steep or wobbly stairs. If there’s an area that employees complain about, work to get it fixed.

Step Three: Consider Employee Comfort A Top Priority

Improving employee comfort is an essential step to creating a safer work environment. Depending on the industry, uncomfortable environments might not be totally avoidable, but maximizing employee comfort when possible can increase safety dramatically.

Overworked employees are one of the chief complaints against comfort. Overworked employees mean a more tired, burnt out, and anxious workforce. Tired workers are 70% more likely to be part of a workplace accident.

To increase comfort, be sure to avoid overworking employees with reasonable hours and allow plenty of breaks. Don’t expect unrealistic deliverables. Beyond that, try to regulate temperature and decrease the amount of time employees spend in enclosed spaces.

Step Four: Use Proper Equipment

While this one might seem obvious, it’s not uncommon for companies to cut costs by using cheaper machinery, outdated equipment, or asking employees to use inadequate or improper tools to complete their jobs. Unsurprisingly, this leads to more injuries, more exhausted employees, and ultimately lower productivity.

This step is pretty straight forward. Use the proper equipment for the right jobs. For example, if you work in a warehouse with lots of dust and chemicals, be sure to use an explosion-proof vacuum. If toxic chemicals are a part of the job, make sure safety equipment is worn and provided. If scaling to the tops of high shelves is a normal part of the job, opt for lifts instead of rickety ladders. Each industry has its own type of equipment, but regardless, there is always updated and safer equipment available for every industry.

Step Five: Focus on Psychosocial Issues

Thanks mostly to employee complaints and activism from non-profits, psychosocial issues in the workplace have made their way to the forefront of workplace safety concerns. Employees who have dealt with psychosocial issues in the workplace are more likely to struggle with increased stress, anxiety, depression, and in severe cases, drug use, and suicide.

Workplace stress accounts for $190 billion in yearly healthcare costs and 120,000 deaths each year. Aside from employee comfort, issues like sexual harassment, bullying, workplace violence, and more, are all examples of common psychosocial workplace issues.

To combat these problems, it’s essential to create an environment that encourages and promotes reporting any sort of issues that disrupt an employee’s mental wellbeing. They shouldn’t fear retaliation, and they should know that action will be taken. Consider security cameras that run 24/7 to keep your employees feeling safe. Design a layout that’s open, but then use something like modular office walls, to promote privacy when it’s needed.

Workers Demand a Safer Environment

More and more workers are demanding a safer work environment. These five steps are a surefire way to start creating a safer environment in your workplace.

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Lee is the owner of the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the home building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.

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Number of workplace safety inspectors fall under Trump

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Rebecca RaineyDespite assurances from Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta that he will boost the number of OSHA compliance officers this fiscal year, new data shows the number of inspectors has declined.

According to statistics that POLITICO obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the number of compliance safety and health officers tasked with conducting workplace inspections at the agency had fallen in April to 870. That’s down from the 875 safety inspectors that OSHA reported in January (in response to a FOIA request from the left-leaning National Employment Law Project).

In addition, data provided to POLITICO from OSHA reveals that since January the agency has lost two area directors responsible for training and supervising safety and health inspectors.

During the same month that OSHA recorded the 7-person decline, Acosta testified before a House appropriations panel that OSHA “expects to have a significant increase in inspectors in FY 2019.” The fiscal year runs from Oct 1 through September 30.

At that April hearing, Acosta noted that OSHA hired 76 new inspectors in FY 2018.

“These numbers are stunning,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA policy adviser now with NELP. “The agency now has the lowest number of inspectors in its entire history—it will now take over 160 years for the agency to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just once. This does not bode well for workers.”

The number of OSHA inspectors fluctuated throughout the Obama administration, rising to 1,059 inspectors from 2009 to 2011, then declining to 943 from 2011 to 2015, then rising again in 2016 to 952 inspectors.

Democrats and safety advocates blame the decline under Trump on retirements and on the federal hiring freeze ordered in early 2017

“This is a sign of erosion in OSHA’s ability to inspect workplaces,” Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at the AFL-CIO, told POLITICO. “Acosta has committed to strong enforcement, but their ability to do so is being hobbled and crippled by losing experienced staff.”

In total, OSHA’s compliance safety and health officers reached 949 in April, but that figure also includes 79 area directors, who do not conduct workplace inspections. According to January numbers obtained by advocates, the agency had 81 area directors on board at the time.

The Labor Department’s budget request for OSHA for fiscal year 2020 included more than $3.7 million to hire 30 additional compliance officers

Asked to comment on the decline in safety inspectors, a DOL spokesperson said that OSHA “has taken several steps to increase its federal enforcement staffing levels.” In 2017, the spokesperson said, Acosta granted OSHA approval to fill all its funded inspector positions.

“OSHA has also begun recruiting for a larger number of positions than available vacancies,” the spokesperson said, “to ensure there is a continuous pool of [compliance safety health officer] applicants for selection when future vacancies occur.”

Despite the decline in inspectors, the number of OSHA inspections rose in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 to above 32,000. But a March NELP report said that in both fiscal years the agency cut back on the number of more complex, resource-intensive, and “high-impact” safety and health inspections.

In making this calculation, NELP used the same metric created by OSHA under President Barack Obama. In 2016, OSHA stopped measuring its performance by the number of total inspections and instead started counting by weighted “enforcement units” to better assess the quantity of enforcement activity. Then-OSHA chief David Michaels concluded that a raw inspection count was misleading because one-day inspections were equated with more complicated five-month inspections.

According to NELP’s March report, in FY 2018 OSHA enforcement dropped by 352 enforcement units, to 41,478.

This article was originally published at Politico on June 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.


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Workplace safety enforcement plummets under Trump … but fatality investigations rise

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not have enough workplace safety inspectors before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, and as with just about everything else, it’s gotten worse in Trump’s two-plus years in office. The number of inspectors has fallen to a record low in the history of the agency, and a new analysis by the National Employment Law Project shows how bad things have gotten: The number of complicated and high-penalty investigations OSHA does has fallen—but at the same time, fatality investigations have risen.

The Trump administration’s story is that total investigations have risen. But that’s not helpful if what’s happening is that inspectors are being pushed to take on quick and easy cases rather than digging into the complicated or difficult ones. That’s just what’s happening, NELP’s Debbie Berkowitz, herself a former OSHA official, writes. “For example, when inspectors go onto a construction site, they can inspect multiple subcontractors all at once, but count each one as a separate inspection. They can get through these sites in a few hours, and count four to five inspections.” At the same time, inspections of concerns like musculoskeletal hazards, worker exposure to dangerous chemicals, explosion risks, and heat exposure have all dropped dramatically.

OSHA is failing to conduct inspections of workplaces that have reported amputations—imagine that you lose a body part on the job and the government doesn’t even come to check out if your boss is running a safe shop. In at least two cases, poultry plants haven’t been inspected even after reporting two amputations or injuries requiring hospitalization in the course of just a few months.

But the big red flag is this: In 2017 there were 837 workplaces inspected because of a work-related death or a catastrophe of more than three workers hospitalized. In 2018, the number rose to 929. The Trump administration is letting workplace safety inspector jobs go empty, it’s focusing on hasty inspections while the number of complicated investigations of serious risks drops, it’s failing to investigate amputations … but the serious thing that is rising is fatality investigations. That is very scary news for America’s workers.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.


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Caring for Our Caregivers: Workplace Violence Hearing Highlights Job-Related Assaults for Health Care and Social Service Workers

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Workplace violence is a serious and growing problem for working people in the United States: It causes more than 450 homicides and 28,000 serious injuries each year. Workplace homicide now is responsible for more workplace deaths than equipment, fires and explosions. Two of every three workplace violence injuries are suffered by women.

Health care and social service workers are at greatest risk of violence on the job because of their direct contact with patients and clients. They are five times as likely to suffer a workplace violence injury as workers in other occupations.

Violence against health care and social service workers is foreseeable and preventable but the Trump administration has refused to act. That is why Rep. Joe Courtney (Conn.) introduced legislation last week that would require the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a standard to protect these workers. The standard would reduce violence by requiring employers to develop workplace violence prevention programs that identify and control hazards, improve reporting and training, evaluate procedures and strengthen whistlebower protections for those who speak up, which lead to safer staffing levels, improved lighting and better surveillance systems.

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, held a hearing to highlight this severe and growing problem and the need for an OSHA standard to protect working people. Patt, an AFT member from Wisconsin, testified about her traumatic experience of assault as a registered nurse. She and her colleagues had tried to speak to management and press for improvements, but their voices were not heard. Then she was attacked by a teenage patient with a history of aggression at a county mental health facility. He kicked her in the throat, collapsing her trachea, requiring intubation and surgery. She suffers severe post-traumatic stress disorder and can no longer work in her dream job as a nurse. It was not a random event, but a predictable scenario that could have been prevented with a clear plan and better-trained staff.

Watch the hearing.

Here are other union members’ experiences of violence on the job that could have been prevented with an enforceable OSHA standard:

Helene: An AFT member and psychiatric nurse in Connecticut for 16 years in an acute care hospital who attempted to hand a patient his pain medication when he punched her in her jaw, knocking her to the floor and breaking her pelvis. Helene was unable to return to work for six and a half months, had to go through rehabilitation and physical therapy, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. This patient had a history of violence, including previously attacking a social worker, but there was no system in place to alert her.

Brandy: A National Nurses United (NNU) member and registered nurse in California for 18 years in general pediatrics who was assigned to a 14-year-old patient with a diagnosis of aggressive behavior. When Brandy entered the patient’s room, the patient had his mother pressed against the closet door with his hands around her neck. Brandy called for security and additional staff assistance. They were able to safely remove the patient’s mother, but the patient threw a chair at Brandy, who was trapped between a wall and a bed. Brandy suffers from tendonitis in her right elbow, which makes it difficult to do simple everyday tasks such as opening jars, typing and hanging bags of fluids at work. Appropriate violence-prevention controls include ensuring that large furniture and other items that can be used as weapons are affixed to the floor in rooms with aggressive patients.

Eric: An AFSCME member and security counselor at a Minnesota hospital who has administered treatment to the mentally ill for nearly a decade. Eric was assigned to monitor a highly assaultive patient who continually attacked his fellow patients. The patient then turned his assaultive behavior on Eric and punched him in the right eye, causing him to instantly lose sight in the impacted eye. Eric managed to restrain the patient until his co-workers arrived to assist. Eric was rushed to the emergency room via ambulance where they discovered he had a blow-out fracture of his orbital bone and a popped sinus. He received 17 stitches, and his eye socket has never fully recovered. The hospital did not have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program that would have prevented this.

John: A United Steelworkers (USW) member and certified nursing assistant in California for 18 years who tried to change a male veteran’s wet bed when the patient became agitated and attacked John, breaking his arm. He was out of work for four weeks. John didn’t know the patient was prone to violence. At his facility, workplace violence comes from patients, visitors and other employees. There is at least one incident every week, ranging from slapping to breaking arms or punching. After John’s incident, the employer began requiring a note on the patients’ charts when they are prone to agitation or violence. Sometime later, the employer also began using red blankets on the beds to denote a combative patient so all employees would know when they interacted with the patient.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on February 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Reindel is a senior health and safety specialist at the AFL-CIO.


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Protecting America’s Workers Act Introduced. Would Strengthen OSHA and Workers’ Rights

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A new and improved Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) has been introduced into the House of Representatives by Congressman Joe Courtney (D-CT). Similar versions of this bill has been introduced every year for over a decade.  The bill number is H.R.1074 and a copy of it can soon be found here. (In the meantime, here is a PDF and a Section-by-Section analysis.)

As with past PAWA bills, this version, which has 27 co-sponsors, extends OSHA coverage to public sector employees in those states where they’re not currently covered (as well as federal employees), strengthens anti-retaliation protections for workers, requires the abatement of hazards during contests by employers and toughens criminal penalties.

In addition, this year’s bill also includes provisions to codify OSHA’s severe injury and electronic injury reporting requirements (including the detailed reporting by large employers recently withdrawn by OSHA). It reverses the revocation of the “Volks Rule” which was repealed by Congress and the President under the Congressional Review Act at the beginning of the Trump administration.

PAWA significantly expands workers’ rights to participate in improving health and safety in their workplaces, and enhances the ability of OSHA to effectively enforce safe working conditions. 

The bill significantly expands workers’ rights to participate in improving health and safety in their workplaces, and enhances the ability of OSHA to effectively enforce safe working conditions.

Courtney introduced the bill on the anniversary of the 2010 Kleen Energy power plant explosion that killed 5 workers in Middletown, Connecticut.  According to Courtney,

Today, on the ninth anniversary of the accident, it’s appropriate that my colleagues and I reintroduce this legislation to make critical, decades-overdue updates to OSHA. Every day, 14 employees go to work and never come home to their families due to fatal on-the-job injuries. The OSHAct made great strides in protecting American workers, but since it was enacted the American workplace has modernized and diversified. The law should keep up with the realities that workers face on the job today. Our bill is focused on updates and compliance, not on petty, punitive measures against employers, and will ensure that today’s workforce is empowered and protected by our nation’s chief worker safety law.

What’s In PAWA?

If passed, PAWA 2019 would:

  • Expand OSHA coverage to millions of state and local government employees in the 24 states where they’re not currently covered and broaden OSHA coverage to include federal employees.   
  • Authorize felony penalties against employers who knowingly commit OSHA violations that result in death or serious bodily injury and extend such penalties to corporate officers and directors. Under the current law, criminal penalties for the willful death of a worker are only misdemeanors. In addition, knowing violations which cause or contribute to the death of a worker would have a maximum fine of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations, or a 10-year prison term, or both.  Death of a worker would not be the only violation that could send an employer to jail. Knowing violations which cause “serious bodily harm” are subject to maximum fine of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations or a 5-year prison term, or both.
  • Codify the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program to provide grant funding for training and education programs for workers and employers. President Trump has attempted to eliminate the program in his last two budgets.
  • Reinstate the “Volks Rule,” making it an employer’s ongoing obligation to maintain accurate records of work-related illness and injuries. This reverses a Congressional Review Act resolution that eliminated OSHA’s authority to issue citations for recordkeeping violations that occurred within the 5 year record retention period and undermined OSHA’s ability to enforce against employers who violate requirements to record workplace injuries and illnesses.
  • Improve whistleblower protections for workers who call attention to unsafe working conditions, including extending the time allowed to file a whistleblower complaint from 30 days to 180 days.   
  • Expand workers’ right to contest citations and penalties. An employee or employee representative may challenge the severity of a citation (e.g. willful, serious, repeated, etc.) and/or the size of the proposed penalty. Currently employees and their representatives are only allowed to contest the length of the abatement period.
  • Clarify that an “authorized employee representative” under the OSHAct does not just refer to an employee of the employer, or a union representative, but rather “an individual or organization designated by one or more employees of the employer.” OSHA had clarified this change by interpretation during the Obama administration, but that interpretation was withdrawn under the Trump administration.
  • Ensure worker safety is protected in a timely manner by mandating that employers correct hazardous conditions while a citation is being contested.  Currently, the employer does not have to correct a violation if the employer challenges the citation, leaving workers in harm’s way.   Currently, OSHA is often forced to significantly reduce or eliminate penalties or downgrade citations in order to secure timely abatement of hazards. Employers would have a right to seek a temporary stay of OSHA’s abatement order through an expedited proceeding before a Review Commission Administrative Law Judge.
  • Improve protections for employees currently covered by other agencies, such as the FAA and employees of the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities by enabling OSHA to determine the adequacy of those agencies’ workplace safety and health programs.  Currently the agency only only has to state
  • Update obsolete consensus standards within two years that were incorporated by reference when OSHA was first enacted in 1970.   There are approximately 200 consensus standards that cover general industry and maritime that were initially adopted in the early 1970s and for which lengthy notice and comment rulemaking was not required.
  • Deter high gravity violations by providing authority for increased civil monetary penalties for willful and serious violations that cause death or serious bodily injury.   
  • Require employers to report injury and illness records to OSHA to provide the agency with data to effectively target unsafe workplaces.   This would codify OSHA’s Severe Injury Reporting rule (which now exists as a regulation), as well as the “electronic recordkeeping” regulation that OSHA partially rolled back last week. 
  • Require OSHA to investigate all cases of death and serious injuries that occur within a place of employment.   
  • Establish rights for families of workers who were killed on the job by giving families the right to meet with OSHA investigators, receive copies of citations, and to have an opportunity to make a statement before any settlement negotiations.   
  • Improve protections for workers in state plans by allowing federal OSHA a more expedited procedure to take over enforcement in those states where the plan fails to meet minimum requirements needed to protect workers’ safety and health. GAO would be required to conduct a study to determine whether OSHA oversight of state plans, and state plan funding is adequate.
This article was originally published at Confined Space on February 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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