Without infectious disease standards, staff, OSHA does few COVID inspections in Alabama

An agency legally mandated to protect worker safety in Alabama lacks an infectious disease standard and has conducted only a handful of onsite inspections following worker complaints about COVID-19, according to AL.com.

As of July 6, Alabama’s OSHA office received 272 related worker safety complaints concerning COVID-19 and conducted seven on-site inspections. Of those COVID-19 inspections, six involved fatalities.

As of July 10, 220 of the state’s 272 complaints were closed and 52 remained open.

“The agency is using a risk-based approach to assess and prioritize our field work and is employing all inspection and investigation protocols available to support the mission of protecting worker safety and health,” said spokesman Eric Lucero.

According to Lucero, there are 22 OSHA compliance officers for the state.

One former OSHA official, however, is critical of the agency’s response.

“OSHA has completely abandoned its mission to protect workers in this pandemic,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior policy advisor for OSHA who now works at the National Employment Law Project.

While some states have independent worker safety agencies, Alabama’s is part of federal OSHA, which has no specific enforcement standards for infectious disease. OSHA was in the process of writing an infectious disease standard on the federal level when the Trump Administration halted its creation in 2017, according to Berkowitz.

Donald Elswick, executive director of Alabama Safe State, an outreach arm of OSHA housed at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, says he believes the existing standards are sufficient to enforce safety during the pandemic.

Yet with limited compliance officers for the state of Alabama, Elswick says the preventative work of his organization around PPE, social distancing, and ventilation is critical to keep workers safe from coronavirus.

Alabama Safe State provides OSHA training courses and onsite workplace safety consultation for employers.

All complaints are investigated, but may not result in an on-site inspection, according to OSHA.

The agency says there are some standards it can use to enforce safety around COVID-19, such as a “general duty clause,” requiring employers keep the workplace safe and a PPE standard.

Berkowitz says currently the agency is asking employers to self-investigate once a complaint comes in.

“OSHA has failed in every way, and it’s a stunning situation, but this administration has decided not to enforce the OSHA law and thus workers are on their own,” she said.