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As pandemic unfolded, OSHA complaints around Pittsburgh highlighted supply shortages

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(Not enough masks. Not enough hand sanitizer. Allowing employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 to work shifts. Cleanliness concerns in a laboratory where COVID-19 tests were processed. An unsanitized palm scanner that 2,500 employees touched to enter the workplace.

The complaints poured into the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the arm of the U.S. Department of Labor charged with protecting private-sector employees, as the pandemic unfolded across Pittsburgh-area workplaces. 

From March through July 12, employees at 63 companies in the Pittsburgh region filed 100 complaints related to COVID-19 concerns with OSHA, according to weekly data published by the agency. The alleged violations potentially exposed a total of 5,857 workers in the region, according to the complaints.

The range of the complaints revealed the challenges businesses faced as the pandemic unfolded with shortages of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, and meeting shifting federal health guidelines. As essential workers combated the health crisis and kept the economy afloat, they faced potential dangers.

The complaints, which opened inspections that contained no threat of fines for employers, also showed OSHA’s limitations in holding employers accountable for health and safety violations in a pandemic.

An emergency standard

Despite a flood of thousands of complaints nationwide, OSHA is not using the most powerful tool at its disposal to protect workers, said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

“They’re treating this really as business as usual,” said Mr. Michaels, who ran OSHA from 2009 until January 2017.

By declining to issue an emergency temporary standard — which would turn OSHA’s recommendations into requirements for employers — the agency has abdicated its responsibility to protect workers, he said.

“For the most part, they are closing them [complaints] with a phone call or an email,” and have opened only a small number of inspections, said Mr. Michaels, who was OSHA’s longest serving head. There is currently no Senate-confirmed head of OSHA.

For months, labor unions, including the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers, have called for an emergency standard, which would legally require employers to provide uniform protections, such as an exposure control plan, protective equipment, enhanced cleaning and job protection for workers who fall ill.

In May, the AFL-CIO asked a federal appeals court in Washington to compel OSHA to enforce such standards. And last month, the United Steelworkers joined the United Mine Workers of America on a similar lawsuit against the Mine Safety and Health Administration, a separate agency tasked with ensuring miners’ safety.

Rick Bloomingdale, President of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said he doesn’t fault individual OSHA inspectors for what are systemic problems. “They can’t get everywhere, they have no leadership, and they don’t have the infectious disease standard to tell employers,” Mr. Bloomingdale said.

An incomplete picture

OSHA did not respond to questions by this story’s deadline.

OSHA has published guidelines on its website on how to prepare for COVID-19 and how to reopen workplaces safely amid the pandemic. The agency drew up recommendations for specific industries on PPE, decontamination of equipment and social distancing.

But OSHA has been slow to release data on violations of those policies. In early May, the agency released reports showing only the total number of complaints and referrals by region of the country. It declined to provide anything more detailed, such as Pittsburgh-area violations or the names of employers and number of employees potentially exposed.

The agency ultimately published the more detailed data online in response to a number of Freedom of Information Act requests.

Beyond fines, OSHA can wield tremendous influence over compliance. A study last month by a Duke University researcher found that when OSHA has announced violations against a company in a press release, OSHA violations at peer facilities nearby fell by 73%.

“OSHA would have to conduct an additional 210 inspections to elicit the same improvement in compliance as sparked by a single press release about severe violations,” Matthew S. Johnson, assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said in a statement with the study.

Early supply complaints

In the pandemic’s early days, complaints stemmed from hospitals or other healthcare-related workplaces: UPMC Passavant, UPMC St. Margaret, UPMC Mercy, UPMC Montefiore, Jefferson Hospital, AHN West Penn Hospital, Allegheny Valley Hospital, Allegheny General Hospital, and clinical laboratory Quest Diagnostics all were the site of complaints. 

Almost all of the complaints related to a lack of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, gowns, and masks, commonly referred to as PPE.

“Employees that are in direct contact with patients are not provided with Personal Protective Equipment [PPE] including face masks, to protect themselves from possible exposure from known and unknown health conditions,” complained one employee at UPMC Passavant on March 18.

“The employer does not provide adequate PPE for patient care,” a UPMC St. Margaret worker complained March 20.

“Nurses working in the ICU are not provided with dust masks while working with patients that may potentially have COVID-19. Patients are waiting on the test results,” a Jefferson hospital worker told OSHA on March 24.

Dan Laurent, a spokesman for AHN, said the health provider had strictly followed all federal and state guidelines from the start of the pandemic. The “overwhelming majority” of employees were grateful for its efforts in being at the forefront of securing masks and other supplies, he said.

“We do, however, understand the concern and anxiety that some on the front lines have expressed about the risks they face, regardless of the recommended precautions,” Mr. Laurent said. AHN resolved the complaints by telling OSHA “about the many steps we have taken to ensure the safest clinical environment possible.”

UPMC, asked to respond to the OSHA complaints, said it has “a more-than-ample supply of PPE.”

The complaints even extended to a laboratory processing COVID-19 test samples.

On March 27, an employee at Quest Diagnostics in Green Tree notified OSHA of insufficient cleaning of a building where COVID-19 samples were being handled.

“This includes areas such as the ground floor, stairwells, drop-off lab areas, carts, computers and cars,” according to the complaint.

“Employees are provided masks,” it added, “but they are not being worn when handling samples of COVID-19.”

There were two complaints from Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center, the Beaver County nursing home with more than 70 COVID-19 deaths.

“Employees are exposed to COVID-19 from the patients and the employer is not following CDC recommendations and guidelines such as providing masks for the employees, and social distancing,” a worker complained on April 13.

“Employees that have tested positive for Coronavirus are working, swabbing and taking other employee’s temperatures daily in the facility,” a May 28 complaint alleged, potentially exposing 400 employees to danger.

In a written statement, Brighton facility management said it has and will follow “guidance and protocols issued by government authorities,” and holds regular training sessions for staff.

“While this crisis is not yet over, we can say that there are currently zero active cases of COVID-19 in our facility. This is a credit to the tremendous efforts and expert care of our staff over the past several months,” Brighton officials wrote.

Reopening challenges

More complaints have emerged in recent weeks as Pennsylvania gradually allowed businesses to reopen: retail outlets large and small, manufacturing plants and several restaurants.

On June 23, two weeks after the state allowed The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington to reopen, an employee called OSHA to complain that employees are not wearing their face masks during shift changes, in the break rooms or in the hallways.

A statement from a Meadows spokesman said OSHA notified casino management of the complaint and “we thoroughly investigated the matter.” The spokesman, Kevin Brogan, said the casino requires all employees and patrons to wear masks inside the property at all times unless they are “actively eating or drinking.”

Employees face disciplinary action, up to and including termination, for failing to follow the guidelines, Mr. Brogan added.

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