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