Shelter-in-place orders are an effective means to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, yet millions of Americans have no choice but to leave home to go to work every day.

Deemed essential for their jobs in manufacturing, grocery stores, pharmacies, warehouses, retailing and restaurants, they face daily risks by working alongside colleagues and customers who may be carriers of the coronavirus.

At grocery stores and sprawling warehouses, workers say not enough is being done to protect them from exposure. Walmart employees, for instance, say they lack sufficient sanitizing supplies and protective gear and are forced to congregate in spaces that put them well within a 6-foot radius of coworkers.

At meat processing plants, where production lines often require working shoulder to shoulder, the risks are particularly acute. And mass-transit workers say they haven’t been provided masks or personal cleaning supplies.

When their shifts end, they go home to their families, putting more people at risk.

Weeks into the pandemic, it’s apparent that not nearly enough is being done to protect these front-line workers, even as their continued labor ensures that a semblance of normality endures for their fellow Americans.

The Department of Labor’s primary worker safety enforcement arm, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has taken a largely hands-off approach to the pandemic. Only recently did OSHA put a priority on investigating health care facilities for complaints about coronavirus safety procedures, while effectively giving a free pass to some of the nation’s largest employers. Without a clear set of rules to follow, employers are making them up as they go.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued sensible guidelines on the federal level that can protect workers, such as standards for social distancing, sanitizing stations and using masks in the workplace. But OSHA hasn’t made the guidelines mandatory for workplaces.

In a statement to The New York Times, OSHA said that “employers are, and will continue to be, responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace” and that it can respond to formal complaints where a worker is killed or seriously injured on the job, known as the General Duty clause. The agency’s COVID-19 guidance for employers, however, acknowledges upfront it “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.”

OSHA offices are fielding thousands of coronavirus complaints but don’t have the wherewithal to investigate them. As part of an advisory last week, OSHA indicated companies should conduct their own investigations and report back to the agency.

“The message from OSHA to employers and their workers is: You’re on your own,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA official and now program director of the National Employment Law Project.

OSHA also can and should go beyond CDC guidelines to require measures such as staggered shifts and lunch breaks and construction of barriers to protect employees in jobs like manufacturing and meat packing that require close quarters. And it should carefully evaluate updated CDC guidelines that permit employers to bring some workers back to the job after potential COVID-19 exposure before a two-week quarantine.

OSHA has precedent on its side for tougher rules. During the H1N1 flu outbreak, it made CDC rules enforceable, requiring the use of face masks and other measures to slow transmission. It has failed to act so far this time, however.

Companies may say new rules would be onerous and expensive, but the cost of prolonging the coronavirus’s spread can be far more costly.

OSHA has taken steps to protect health care workers by prioritizing inspections of hospitals and other “high risk” facilities. But during the pandemic, warehouses and slaughterhouses, city buses and grocery stores have become high-risk facilities, too. If the spread of the disease is to slow, millions of workers deserve far better protection.

• The New York Times

Michael A. Smith: 409-683-5206;

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(8) comments

Bailey Jones

I believe that most businesses care enough about the employees who make them possible to take precautions to keep those employees safe. But many do not, and will not. Those who do not, endanger not only their employees, but their communities as well.

Carlos Ponce

"I believe that most businesses care enough about the employee..." remember, Bailey, the editorial was written for a New York City audience!

Ray Taft

Definitely written for a NYC audience, and for New York City’s particular circumstances. NYC is a high population density city with real mass transit. We here in Galveston County are not like that at all.

Another bit of fear mongering by TDN to stir up opposition against all things Republican?

Bailey Jones

I'll guess that neither of you guys read the editorial - all about safeguarding workers in the great American heartland, not NYC (as if the NYT was a local paper). But here's a question for discussion - I know how you both feel about the government forcing businesses to shut down, how do you feel about Trump's order requiring them NOT to shut down, despite multiple meat factories having had multiple COVID deaths?

Carlos Ponce

"most businesses care enough about the employees" in Texas, not NYC.

Ted Gillis

Carlos, are you quoting something here, or just being anti NYC.

Texas is no different from any other part of the country. We have good employers and bad employers here.

Carlos Ponce

I'm quoting Bailey Jones. And it's been a while since I've been to NYC but discovered the "nice" people we met were predominantly not locals.

Ted Gillis

I’ve met some locals here that a definitely not “nice” people, and I didn’t have to travel to NYC to discover that.

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