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OP-ED: OSHA is failing to protect workers

Michael Felsen
Tribune News Service (TNS)
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia testifies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on COVID-19/Unemployment Insurance on Tuesday, June 9, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. D.C. (Caroline Brehman/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

On April 9, a worker at Maid-Rite Specialty Foods meatpacking plant in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, filed a complaint with OSHA, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The worker listed a number of COVID-19-related safety issues, and went on to say:

“About half the plant is out sick, they hire more people and (are) not taking care of the problem,” read the complaint, included in a recently filed lawsuit against OSHA. “I’m scared to go to work everyday. I’m risking my life.”

OSHA didn’t inspect the facility. It relayed the worker’s concerns to Maid-Rite, which responded, and OSHA took no further action.

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Then, on May 19, three other workers at the same plant, who hadn’t known about the first worker’s complaint, filed their own, this time with legal representation. Maid-Rite, they said, didn’t provide adequate face coverings or hand-washing, and didn’t require proper social distancing on the assembly line.

The complainants also said the company incentivized workers to work while sick, and failed to inform them of their risk of exposure. Two of the three complaining workers said they believe they contracted COVID-19 while at work. They argued that conditions at the plant amounted to an “imminent danger” that should, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, trigger an immediate inspection.

By the date of their complaint, it was well-known that meatpacking plants, like Cargill, JBS, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson, were breeding grounds for COVID-19 infections. Nonetheless, OSHA treated the complaint like the previous one, sending a letter to the company, and receiving the company’s response.

It was only after multiple follow-up inquiries from the workers’ attorneys that OSHA opened an inspection, which the agency told the attorneys could take up to six months to complete.

With their health, and possibly their lives, hanging in the balance, the workers didn’t think they could afford to wait that long — or even longer if the company challenged violations OSHA might find.

And so on July 22, they sued OSHA and Eugene Scalia, President Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, to force them to seek a court order requiring Maid-Rite to clean up its act right away, not months from now. Waiting, they said, was just too dangerous.

Not surprisingly, the Labor Department is pushing back. It says the workers’ claims are invalid, that the agency is doing enough to protect the workers, and that the court should dismiss their lawsuit.

Under Scalia, OSHA is widely considered to have all but abandoned workers, especially since the pandemic struck.

In the face of the most cataclysmic public and workplace health crisis in more than a century, the department had the power to issue an emergency temporary infectious disease standard that employers across the country would have been required to comply with. Instead, it published a series of unenforceable recommendations.

OSHA could also have significantly ramped up its inspection staff, now at its lowest level in 45 years, to take on this unprecedented threat to worker health. Instead, onsite inspections remain rare, and thousands of worker complaints are opened and closed summarily.

As of July 21, OSHA had issued just four citations on a total of 7,943 complaints. That’s few enough to count on one hand.

Meanwhile, as of Monday, almost 40,000 workers at 471 meatpacking plants had contracted COVID-19, 187 of them fatally.

The workers at Maid-Rite have ample reason to be scared. It’s OSHA’s responsibility to make sure their employer protects them. But it looks like that isn’t going to happen, unless a court orders the agency to do its job.

— Michael Felsen of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, retired in 2018 after a 39-year career as an attorney with the Department of Labor, serving from 2010-2018 as its New England Regional Solicitor. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.