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REUTERS REPORT-Regulators Ignored Workers’ COVID-19 Safety Complaints Amid Deadly Outbreaks

2021-01-06 14:24:58
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Miguel Cabezola, a driver for United Parcel Service Inc. in Tucson, Arizona, filed a complaint with U.S. workplace regulators on March 27, alleging that the company was taking a lax approach to social distance, disinfecting equipment, and quarantining employees with COVID-19 symptoms . He hoped for an inspection of the facility that would force changes to protect workers' safety.

Instead, the state division of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) summarized Cabezola's concerns in an email to company management, reviewed UPS's response, and closed the case.

Over the following two months, a COVID-19 outbreak infected more than 40 Tucson UPS employees – including a manager who eventually died – and caused delivery delays across southern Arizona, according to interviews with six Tucson UPS employees and local union officials. of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Cabezola's complaint to the regulator, along with that of another employee in May, had "no effect," said Karla Schumann, head of the local Teamsters union representing the UPS employees. When asked about the outbreak, UPS expressed regret over the manager's death and said it has tightened protocols requiring social distance and sanitation since the early days of the pandemic.

The UPS outbreak is one of dozens of cases identified by Reuters, in which OSHA largely ignored employees who reported lax pandemic security practices, according to the agency's data.

Reuters identified the workplace outbreaks through federal, state and local government data and news reports with detailed information on infections and deaths. The news agency examined the regulatory response through OSHA data on complaints filed by employees and reports of resulting inspections.

106 Workplaces

Reuters identified 106 workplaces in the US where workers complained of shoddy pandemic safety practices around the time of the outbreaks – and regulators never inspected the facilities or in some cases waited months to do so, according to OSHA data. The agency never inspected 70 of those workplaces, where, according to Reuters analysis, at least 4,500 employees were infected with the coronavirus and 26 died after contracting COVID-19.

The workers' regulatory complaints came from a cross-section of companies, including some of America's best-known companies, including Tesla Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc.

Overall, federal and state OSHA agencies performed 44% fewer workplace inspections between March – when the coronavirus spread widely in the United States – and the end of December, compared to the same period in 2019.

In mid-December, only 12 of the 106 facilities were penalized in response to employee complaints. The complaints came from a wide variety of workplaces, from meat packaging plants and factories to e-commerce warehouses and nursing homes. Their employees claimed that they were socially distanced and had not enforced the wearing of masks; managers who pressure sick employees to work; and a lack of notification to employees of colleague infections.

The 106 cases represent a sampling of how OSHA has responded to the public health crisis. Reuters was unable to conduct a comprehensive investigation into how the agency responded to security complaints, infections and deaths, as most state and local governments do not track or publish data on workplace outbreaks.

UPS spokesman Matt O'Connor said the company's safety practices have evolved over time as health authorities updated public guidelines on COVID-19 and as PPE became available after early shortages. The company, he said, had appropriate infection control protocols in place at the time the manager died. He said UPS is "taking swift action" in response to employees' reports of lax safety practices.

OSHA responsee

The federal agency's acting leader, Loren Sweatt, said in a statement that the allegations in the cases cited by the news organization do not reflect the totality of OSHA's efforts to keep employees safe and "unfairly discredit them. dedicated OSHA inspectors across the country. "

Trevor Laky, a spokesman for the OSHA subsidiary in Arizona, said the agency was not aware of the Tucson UPS manager's death until Reuters inquired in December.

All companies are required to report work-related deaths to OSHA. O & # 39; Connor, of UPS, said the company had not reported the manager's death due to COVID-19 – amid a workplace outbreak – because its own contact investigation determined that the manager had not been in close contact with infected employees.

Laky, of Arizona OSHA, said the agency has no plans to investigate further after UPS told regulators that the death was not work-related.

OSHA is the national workplace safety watchdog and its mission is to prevent injuries and illness at work. Federal OSHA enforces workplace safety in about half of the states, while OSHA-affiliated government agencies perform those duties in the rest of the country. State agencies OSHA are overseen by state governors and the federal agency and must, as a minimum, enforce federal workplace safety regulations.

When OSHA agencies receive complaints from employees, officials decide whether to conduct inspections that could result in fines and requirements to address hazardous working conditions. But regulators have never inspected nearly two-thirds of the 106 workplaces where Reuters has identified outbreaks, according to OSHA data on employee complaints and workplace inspections.

Some of the remaining workplaces were inspected months after the disease struck, often following negative publicity about outbreaks that sometimes resulted in deaths. Of the 106 workplaces surveyed by Reuters, 27 had employees who died from COVID-19. OSHA inspected less than half of those 27 workplaces – despite the agency's guidelines that COVID-19 fatalities should be given top priority.

Overall, federal and state OSHA agencies performed 44% fewer workplace inspections between March – when the coronavirus spread widely in the United States – and the end of December, compared to the same period in 2019. The declining inspections came despite what an OSHA official said, During congressional testimony in May, a large increase in complaints from employees over the pandemic.

Even in workplaces that OSHA has labeled as "high exposure risk" for COVID-19 infection – usually healthcare facilities – few complaints lead to inspections. OSHA has closed complaints from about 1,800 rural hospitals and nursing homes, but only about 15% of them have been inspected so far during the pandemic, according to the Reuters review of OSHA data. OSHA fined about one in five of those inspected facilities.

Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, to be viewed Thursday, April 16, 2020 (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette via AP)

In a written statement, federal OSHA said protecting workers from the pandemic was the & # 39; top priority & # 39; of the agency and that as of mid-December, it has conducted 1,396 COVID-19 inspections at workplaces employing more than 618,000 employees. The US agency said it is investigating every complaint and has closed more than 80% of the more than 13,000 COVID-19 complaints it received up to mid-December. That figure does not include complaints filed with OSHA affiliates.

A Reuters review of OSHA state and federal files on employee complaints, obtained through requests for public records, shows that those investigations were often volatile and rarely led to inspections. Instead, officials typically sent employers a complaint summary by email, as they did with UPS, asking for a response within a week. If the employer responded, the agency closed the case.

Researchers at Harvard University's school of public health found an association between an increase in OSHA complaints in a specific region and an increase in COVID-19 deaths within four weeks in the same area. The peer-reviewed study, published in November, found that OSHA's failure to respond to such complaints is "a missed opportunity" to halt disease transmission in the workplace and in the community.

No COVID-19 standards

The coronavirus pandemic has posed a major challenge for OSHA by addressing thousands of additional complaints. And OSHA has traditionally been devoid of investigative resources – a trend that continued during the Trump administration. The federal agency currently has fewer inspectors than it did in 1975.

Still, some former OSHA officials say the agency's hands-off response to the pandemic reflects a notable deviation from the past, even when compared to previous Republican governments that also favored a light touch of industry regulation.

"This is the kind of workplace crisis for which OSHA was invented," said David Michaels, who led the agency during the Obama administration and is now a professor at George Washington University's school of public health. "OSHA had to be more powerful and creative to use the tools it has, but has decided not to."

Former OSHA officials, along with public health experts, labor groups and legislators, argued as of this spring that OSHA should issue a temporary emergency standard requiring employers to follow specific infection control practices, such as mandating social distance, requiring masks, and removal. of infected employees while paying. OSHA has not enacted such standards, which critics say have made it difficult for the agency to hold employers accountable for pandemic violations.

OSHA said in a statement that it "has the regulatory tools it needs," citing common standards developed before the pandemic for respiratory protection and personal protective equipment in a wide variety of potentially hazardous situations. But none of the existing standards contain specific features for dealing with an infectious disease such as COVID-19.

OSHA has not enacted temporary emergency standards requiring employers to follow specific infection control practices, which critics say have made it difficult for the agency to hold employers accountable for pandemic-related violations.

Five current and former OSHA employees told Reuters that the agency has never developed an aggressive and focused strategy to respond to the pandemic. An OSHA field representative told Reuters that cases related to the pandemic are often delayed by multiple layers of approval in regional offices and in Washington. The relatively small number of violations issued by the agency takes months to process, the employee said.

"I'm not proud of what we've done," the person said.

The inefficiency reflects a widespread neglect of the agency by the administration of US President Donald Trump, the workers said. The administration has left many of the agency's leading top positions by & # 39; acting & # 39; managers. OSHA has not had a Senate-confirmed administrator for the full four-year term.

"What you see at COVID is a function of the lack of a leader," said Kelly Schnapp, a former director of OSHA's Office of Science and Technology Assessment, who left the agency in 2019.

White House spokesman Judd Deere rejected the suggestion that US security regulators had not properly addressed the pandemic. "OSHA's mission and focus has never deviated: to protect America's workers at work," he said in a statement.

Of the 1,396 federal OSHA inspections related to COVID-19, the agency cited 273 of those cases up to mid-December, averaging about $ 13,000 each. That includes fines for meat packaging giants Smithfield Foods Inc and JBS USA, which have had serious outbreaks. Smithfield was fined $ 13,494 for a violation at the factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where four workers died and nearly 1,300 workers were infected. JBS's quote was for $ 15,615 at its Greeley, Colorado plant, where six died and 292 tested positive. Both companies are appealing the fines.

Some of the federal OSHA citations were not fined at all. The largest fine ever by OSHA was an $ 81.3 million fine to BP Products North America Inc. in 2009, following a 2005 Texas refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170 more.

Reporting requirements

In late September, OSHA weakened its guidelines for when employers should notify the agency of employees hospitalized with COVID-19. Previously, employers had to notify OSHA of all & # 39; work-related & # 39; hospital admissions of employees with COVID-19.

The agency then changed its guidelines to require reporting only in cases where an employee is hospitalized "within 24 hours of exposure" to the coronavirus at work. The guideline removes the notification requirement for two reasons: Coronavirus symptoms – let alone hospitalizations – do not occur within 24 hours of exposure to viruses, according to public health experts, and the exact moment of infection is impossible to determine.

UPS internal operations officer. Photo: UPS

Since the announcement of the new guidelines, OSHA data shows that the average number of hospitalizations reported since October was 40% lower than the average number reported from the end of March to September. The numbers have remained low despite the uncontrolled spread of the virus through much of the country over the past two months.

OSHA acknowledged to Reuters that employers are unlikely to report COVID-19 hospital admissions under the revised reporting rules. But it denied changing the rules, saying it only clarified existing regulations.

Michaels, the former OSHA leader under Obama, is now on President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 task force. He said the weakened reporting standards make it much more difficult for OSHA to identify dangerous workplaces.

"By deciding to collect less information, OSHA will then have less opportunity to respond," he said.

During the campaign, Biden pledged to strengthen workplace standards for controlling the virus and increase the number of OSHA inspectors.

Casino employees

In Las Vegas – which hosted millions of tourists during the pandemic – workers at 25 different resorts in the city sent more than 60 complaints to Nevada OSHA between June and September about lax virus safety protocols.

To date, Nevada OSHA has conducted one COVID-19 related inspection of a Vegas casino – the Aria Resort. The case, prompted by a complaint about insufficient enforcement of the wearing of masks and social distancing, has not yet been concluded. MGM Resorts International, which operates Aria, declined to comment on the inspection, but said it has taken strict health and safety measures.

Employees at the Cosmopolitan casino filed complaints with Nevada OSHA seven times from June through August, alleging that the hotel was not following state mandates to require guests to wear masks and keep the casino at half capacity. Employees also alleged that managers pressure them to work despite unsafe conditions.

“Employees have been informed that if they refuse to take a shift, they will be terminated,” a complaint said in late August. "More than 70 employees tested positive and returned to work quickly."

The Cosmopolitan did not answer questions about the total number of workers infected, and county health officials said they do not monitor outbreaks in the workplace. However, a state report from last summer showed that the Cosmopolitan ranks highest on a list of potential COVID-19 exposure points in southern Nevada between June and July, based on interviews with those infected.

At the D Las Vegas casino, an employee complained in July that "50 percent of the employees at the D have tested positive," but that "the employer does not notify potentially exposed employees."

Representatives for the Cosmopolitan and the D Las Vegas said they have strict health and safety protocols to protect employees and guests. The Cosmopolitan said they worked with Nevada OSHA to investigate COVID-19 complaints and have received no citations.

Angela Ciciriello, a spokeswoman for D Las Vegas, said many of the complaints came earlier this year, while the industry was still working on safety protocols for guests and employees. "It was an evolving process, and I think we did the best we could," she said.

The OSHA branch in Nevada also operates Tesla Inc.'s gigantic battery factory. not inspected near Reno, where workers complained of unsafe conditions between March and November. In a September report, county health authorities found that 117 COVID-19 cases since June have been linked to the facility, a joint venture between Tesla and Panasonic Corp. from North America. Tesla employees have complained to OSHA nine times about pandemic-related problems, and Panasonic employees have filed ten complaints.

Tyson said it has worked closely with local health officials and OSHA, and "consistently met or exceeded health authority guidelines."

Tesla workers said in complaints that groups of four to five workers had to stay nearby to keep production going, and that masks were not enforced.

"People work and have COVID-19," a Tesla employee complained at the end of July.

Tesla executives were aware of the illnesses and required employers to work anyway, the complaint said.

Nevada OSHA has not conducted an inspection of the facility. Teri Williams, a Nevada OSHA spokeswoman, did not answer questions about the agency's handling of employee complaints about the casinos and battery factory. She said in a statement that the agency "had to do an enormous amount of work with a small but dedicated staff" during the pandemic.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. Panasonic spokeswoman Dannea DeLisser said in a statement that the company has investigated all complaints related to the plant and has "robust" health and safety protocols for its employees.

Get to work sick

At Tyson Foods Inc. tests in late April showed that nearly 900 employees in Logansport, Indiana, had contracted COVID-19. Employees of the pig processing facility had reported problems weeks before the outbreak. Employees sent 13 complaints to OSHA, describing what was described in one filing as "crowded" working conditions, a lack of protective clothing and people with a fever who continued to show up for shifts.

Indiana OSHA never inspected the site for COVID-19 issues, and it closed the complaints after it received documents from the company in response to emails from the agency.

The state agency said in a statement that all but two complaints were anonymous, making it difficult to follow up with employees. The agency said Tyson has provided documents showing that the company has been working to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Gary Harris, 62, a loading dock worker at the Tyson pig processing plant in Logansport, said workers were left in the dark for weeks about the extent of the virus. Most employees started raising the alarm to management when they noticed how many people were absent.

"They just started going missing, and that's why fear grew," said Harris.

Cass County – the rural stretch surrounding the Logansport facility – went from having a few COVID-19 cases to recording the highest number in the state in late April. Harris called the Tyson factory a "superspreader" and said there was friction between Tyson workers and others in the community, who blamed the workers for the spread.

Tyson did not answer questions from Reuters about its employees' OSHA complaints, but said it has invested $ 540 million in safety improvements at all of its U.S. factories, including temperature controls, health screenings, random tests, and workstation plexiglass dividers since April. The company said it has worked closely with local health officials and OSHA, and "consistently met or exceeded health authority guidelines."

"Avoidable" outbreak

In the two months after UPS driver Cabezola filed a complaint with OSHA on March 27, the virus quickly spread through the facility. Managers often could not inform employees who worked near contaminated colleagues, said Carlos Toledo, a Teamsters union representative for the Tucson facility.

"The outbreak we had was avoidable," said Mike Sanchez, an employee who was ill for three months due to complications from the virus.

UPS spokesperson O'Connor said the company consistently told employees to stay at home when they were sick and that it properly informed employees about the contamination of colleagues – claims disputed by two UPS employees and two union officials.

Employees said UPS only started enforcing requirements for wearing masks and taking other precautions after criticism from the union in the local media and after a manager, Dan Amaro, died of COVID-19 in June. But those efforts have loosened up in recent months, employee Nick Quijada said. "They sure let it slide," he said.

Arizona OSHA officials still have not inspected or visited the UPS facility, and the agency told Reuters it has no plans to do so.

(Reporting by Chris Kirkham and Benjamin Lesser Editing by Janet Roberts and Brian Thevenot)

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