Democrats charge OSHA isn't protecting front-line workers

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House Education and Labor Committee Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chair Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., wears a face mask during a House Committee on Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections hearing examining the federal government's actions to protect workers from COVID-19, Thursday, May 28, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – As U.S. coronavirus deaths top 100,000, Democrats are slamming the Trump administration for failing to protect front-line workers, including those at meatpacking plants and health care facilities where outbreaks of the disease are spiking.

At a House hearing Thursday, Democrats charged that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been “largely invisible” during the pandemic and has not found ways to combat it, such as by issuing an emergency temporary standard for worker protection.

“Deep into this pandemic, OSHA has still not developed any enforceable standards for employers to follow that can protect workers from the airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus,'' said Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., chairwoman of a House subcommittee on workforce protections. OSHA’s existing enforcement tools, including standards that address respirators and personal protective equipment, are "inadequate and unused,'' Adams said.

Instead of an emergency standard, the agency has relied on voluntary guidance that recommends companies erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations, among other steps. But the guidance is not mandatory.

Adams and other lawmakers called that inadequate, citing a spike in COVID-19 cases at meatpacking plants, prisons, nursing homes and other workplaces deemed essential during the pandemic. More than 80,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported among health care workers, meatpacking employees and prison staff, including at least 372 deaths, Adams said.

Those numbers are likely an underestimation because of a lack of data on COVID-19 infections in the workplace, Adams and other lawmakers said. An OSHA official said Thursday the agency is not tracking the number of COVID-19 infections contracted in the workplace.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the worst worker safety crisis in OSHA’s 50-year history. Nothing compares. Yet OSHA continues to sit on the sidelines," Adams said. The agency's failure to act "has sent a clear message to workers across the country that they are on their own,'' she said.

Loren Sweatt, a top Labor Department official who oversees OSHA, said efforts to address COVID-19 have been the agency's top priority since February.