New York Times readers: it’s time for OSHA to do its job

The paper’s readers have written letters to the editor urging the agency to step up to protect workers amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

As noted in your excellent editorial, meatpacking plants, hospitals and industries that put workers in contact with the public have become “hot spots” for the spread of Covid-19. Workers who become infected then carry infection home and spread the virus to their families and communities — sometimes even before they know that they are sick. If we fail to provide proper safeguards for workers, workplaces will continue to be reservoirs of disease and will sustain this pandemic.

Fortunately, we know how to protect workers against Covid-19 and other occupational diseases. A safely designed workplace is the single most effective control. Administrative measures such as hiring enough workers to do the job, so they don’t have to work longer hours with additional exposure, and safe work practices are next in efficacy.

Personal protective equipment (P.P.E.) is always important, but also least effective. Paid sick leave and protection of salary and benefits during quarantine will encourage symptomatic workers to stay home and keep Covid-19 out of the workplace.

Employers have a legal duty under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to provide a safe and healthful workplace for every worker. We strongly agree that OSHA must enforce this responsibility.

Edward L. Baker
Philip J. Landrigan
Gregory R. Wagner
David H. Wegman
The writers are doctors who have served in senior leadership positions in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and/or in major university occupational health programs.

The pandemic has shown a bright light on many of America’s inequities that were hidden or ignored. Awareness for the health and safety of workers has finally come out from the shadows. Unfortunately, OSHA’s refusal to issue any new health and safety standards to meet the pandemic, and its failure to investigate even the worst corporate offenders who put profits ahead of worker safety, are not news to those who follow America’s workplace health and safety issues.

Almost from its passage in 1970, OSHA has been underfunded and understaffed and a target for repeal actions by G.O.P. politicians, leaving workers at risk for injury and death by just showing up to work. Recent government statistics confirm that before the pandemic, an average of 275 American workers died each day from preventable causes. Because of the lack of masks and other P.P.E., workplace social distancing and enforceable standards, that number will surely and unnecessarily rise in this pandemic.

America needs to make OSHA a robust and reformed federal agency that will finally protect workers and not “sit on the sidelines” any longer.

Jonathan D. Karmel
The writer, a lawyer, represents unions and workers and is the author of “Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace.”

To the Editor:

OSHA’s failure to protect workers exposed to Covid-19 is even more disgraceful than your editorial suggests. Just as previous administrations anticipated a pandemic like Covid-19 and developed action plans that were ignored by the Trump administration, previous OSHA leaders were developing an airborne transmissible disease standard after the H1N1 outbreak to protect workers. A draft rule was provided to the new administration, which promptly killed it.

It is ludicrous for OSHA to claim that its current rules are sufficient, when it was well known that new specific measures to protect workers from diseases like Covid-19 were urgently needed and a new rule was moving toward adoption. Although much time has been lost, OSHA can still act to save lives by using its existing authority to issue an emergency temporary standard for airborne transmissible diseases based on this earlier work.

Michael Silverstein
Olympia, Wash.
The writer, a doctor, was director of policy for OSHA in the 1990s.

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