Lawmakers push for stronger protection from COVID-19 for workers

WASHINGTON — Some lawmakers are pushing the federal government to do more to protect health care, transportation, meat processing and other essential workers from COVID-19.

During a House Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing Thursday, Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) said tens of thousands of essential workers have tested positive for the coronavirus nationwide.

Alma was one of several Democratic lawmakers critical of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the hearing. She said while OSHA has issued requirements for the health care sector, there has been only voluntary guidance for other industries.

"The agency that this nation has tasked to protect workers has been largely invisible,” Alma said. "OSHA has still not developed any enforceable standards for employers to follow that can protect workers from the airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus."

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"OSHA has completely abandoned its responsibilities,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said.

Agency leaders and some Republicans on the subcommittee defended OSHA’s efforts.

“The work of the agency continues uninterrupted even as we respond to this pandemic,” said Loren Sweatt, OSHA principal deputy assistant secretary. “OSHA has continued to issue industry-specific alerts that provided targeted guidance on practices and procedures that will help worker’s health and safety.”

“CDC and OSHA have co-authored interim guidance for the meat and poultry packing industry, and interim guidance for manufacturing workers and employers,” said John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The agency said it can take enforcement action against employers under existing policies that were in place well before the pandemic through options including the “general duty clause.”

"OSHA will not use guidance as a substitute for enforcement, rather the agency has the tools and intent to pursue both avenues,” Sweatt said.

The AFL-CIO is suing OSHA for an emergency temporary standard to protect workers but Sweatt said she could not comment on the pending litigation.