You May Expect to Hear from OSHA

Federal workplace safety inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) are ramping up enforcement efforts at health care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent OSHA data.

The dramatic increase in OSHA health care facility inspections are consistent with the Interim Enforcement Response Plan for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) issued by OSHA on April 13 that places a high priority on coronavirus-related inspections at medical facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes.

Compared to the first three weeks of April 2019, the period from April 1, 2020 through April 21, 2020, health care facility inspections, including hospitals and other medical facilities, in the Fatality/Catastrophe category increased by 720 percent, from 5 inspections in 2019 to 36 in 2020 during the same three weeks. In contrast, during the same period in 2019, OSHA inspection data shows OSHA opened only four fatality or catastrophe-related inspections of health care employers.

Further, OSHA began at least 70 inspections from March 15 through April 23, prompted by deaths and multiple hospitalizations of health care workers due to COVID-19. OSHA opened another 15 health care facility inspections resulting from worker complaints or other reports.

New Jersey accounts for 27 of the inspections, with 16 ongoing inspections in New York State. Pennsylvania has had only one OSHA inspection to date. The federal inspection numbers do not include cases where OSHA has elected to respond to complaints through telephone calls and written communications, rather than by dispatching its inspectors. As of April 23, OSHA had received 2,609 coronavirus-related complaints.

OSHA data does not include states that operate their own workplace safety agencies that conduct inspections of privately-owned hospitals and other health care providers. States initiated 73 inspections of health care employers, including 17 that resulted from fatalities or hospitalizations.

Businesses need to document their efforts to comply with OSHA rules and guidance. Although OSHA does not have a rule specifically applicable to the coronavirus, the agency does have requirements for personal protective equipment (“PPE”) and training. OSHA is authorized to use its general duty clause to cite employers who do not mitigate known hazards.

Interestingly, retail stores, both physical and online, have, for the most part, not been subject to enhanced OSHA inspections. The only virus-related fatality OSHA listed in its recent enforcement data are two investigations at a Walmart store located in Evergreen, IL, where two employees contracted coronavirus while working onsite and later died in early April from the virus.

Given the issuance of the OSHA Interim Enforcement Response Plan, health care facilities may expect to hear more from OSHA as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.