OSHA, USDA Inspections Get Inspected

March 5, 2021
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration often floundered through the early stages of the pandemic, according to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration often floundered through the early stages of the pandemic, ignoring complaints from manufacturing workers that piled up by the tens of thousands, according to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, the USDA’s inspector general is reviewing that agency’s performance of COVID-related inspections of meat processing plans, in response to concerns raised by a U.S. senator.

The Journal article details how, from February 2020 to January 2021, the agency received 72% more complaints than in the previous 12 months, and of those, 57,000 were related to the coronavirus. Less than 6% of those complaints resulted in inspections.

OSHA was handicapped by both a lack of inspectors and a muddled approach to the coronavirus. Used to dealing with situations like falls and electric shocks, the agency often seemed at a loss as to how to deal with workplace infection.

OSHA’s initial attitude, according to the Journal article, was that it could only suggest, not require, employers to adhere to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control about social distancing and protective gear. Compounding the difficulty was state health and safety departments that had their own, widely varying rules.

The Journal’s investigation found 500 cases of COVID outbreaks, involving 6,000 infections, at workplaces where workers had previously complained to OSHA about unsafe conditions. OSHA did levy $3.5 million in fines for COVID-related violations.

The inspector general of the USDA, meantime, will open a probe into how the agency handled inspections of meat & poultry plants last year. It will look at how the agency spent $33 million appropriated by Congress to fund extra inspections and what it did to protect inspectors from infection.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) asked USDA and the Labor Department, which oversees OSHA, to evaluate how inspections were done. He said in a statement to the Washington Post that the heavy rate of infection and death in U.S. meat & poultry plants raised “serious questions about any federal actions that may have contributed to the spread of the virus in these facilities."

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