250 COVID-19 complaints from employees in Georgia - but critics say OSHA isn’t doing its job

250 COVID-19 complaints from employees in Georgia - but critics say OSHA isn?t doing its job

ATLANTA — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sets the COVID-19 guidelines for us to follow. But in a Channel 2 Action News investigation, we found employees alleged in a formal federal complaint that the CDC is not following its own safety rules at some of its Atlanta offices.

It is just one of the 250 COVID-19 safety complaints we have uncovered in Georgia.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the federal office that is supposed to protect employees here. But after receiving thousands of complaints from employees worried their lives are being put at risk, OSHA has only issued one formal citation. It was a small fine to a Georgia nursing home.

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From Emory University Hospital, where they are leading the search for a vaccine for COVID-19, to the CDC, where they are literally writing the rules for how to protect from the virus, we have uncovered formal federal complaints filed by Georgia workers who say they were put in unsafe situations with COVID-19.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray dug through the federal database from OSHA, the agency charged with protecting employees and inspecting and sanctioning employers.

He found 250 closed cases so far in Georgia for alleged unsafe COVID-19 working conditions.

"I think OSHA has totally failed. It's abdicated its responsibility," said Debbie Berkowitz, a former top OSHA official during former President Barack Obama's administration, who now works at the National Employment Law Project.

Her concern is that OSHA is closing those cases without ever inspecting facilities.

"When they get a complaint about a worker, about a serious hazard, that is their job to go in and do an inspection, an on-site inspection," Berkowitz said.

Instead, in most cases, OSHA just sends a letter.

We found OSHA is also rarely issuing citations for wrongdoing.

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Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia, who oversees OSHA, testified before the Senate Finance Committee on June 9 that OSHA has only issued one citation to date.

"One citation out of 5,000 is unbelievable," said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez.

The number of cases has grown since that hearing.

OSHA reported from Feb. 1 to July 1, it has received 6,082 COVID-19-related complaints and closed 4,790.

That one citation was a $3,900 fine for Winder, a Georgia nursing home that did not report COVID-19 cases.

“You worked at OSHA. Is this the way OSHA has worked in the past?” Gray asked Berkowitz.

"No. This is a real departure," Berkowitz said.

The CDC complaint has nothing to do with its main building on Clifton Road, but it has to do with its three metro Atlanta satellite campuses.

An employee alleges that CDC does not follow its own guidelines for an on-site symptom checkpoint.

Gray asked CDC about the complaint. In a statement, it said: "CDC implemented appropriate screening, in accordance with CDC covid-19 guidance."

Some of the most disturbing allegations in Georgia are connected to Peachford Hospital, a mental health facility in Dunwoody.

An employee there complained that not only were staff not provided personal protective equipment, or PPE, but the employee also alleges they were threatened with termination if they raised concerns about it.

In a statement, Peachford said:

"PPE is available and being used. We believe the complaint was unfounded, and to date, as we have no indication that OSHA will seek further information, we believe this matter is closed."

OSHA is also sending letters to employers when it receives a complaint:

"The employer must respond to the inquiry, identifying in writing any problems found and noting corrective actions taken or planned. If the response is adequate, OSHA will not conduct an inspection."

At Emory University Hospital, there were two different complaints about employees being forced to reuse PPE and a lack of N95 face masks.

The president of the Georgia Nursing Association, Richard Lamphier, said that was a major problem at hospitals across the state.

But as we see a new wave of hospitalizations, he told Gray that hospitals are more prepared this time.

“I really think that as we prepared for second wave, we all really thought that it was coming, and we were preparing and looking for that. So I really think we have the supplies now to handle that second wave,” Lamphier said.

Emory University Hospital released a statement, saying:

"Both OSHA complaints have been investigated to ensure our compliance, and our findings and responses have been accepted by ASHA, and the cases closed."

Scalia defended OSHA's actions before Congress.

“We have a number of cases that we are investigating. And if we find violations, we will certainly not hesitate to bring a case,” Scalia said.

OSHA reported as of July 1, it has launched 626 inspections nationwide, 611 of which are still open.

OSHA also added the employee who filed the original complaint will receive a copy of the employer's response.

If they are still not satisfied, they can request an on-site inspection.

Investigation finds state is doing virtual inspections of nursing, assisted living homes