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COVID, OSHA Complaints, And Unsafe Labor Practices

Owing to the pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration gets COVID complaints that go unanswered. A Harvard study finds they correspond workplace deaths.

Donald Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I have pointed out many times, is not especially eager to fine employers for Covid violations. It has imposed precisely zero mandatory safety standards to prevent or contain Covid outbreaks, making it fairly difficult for the agency to fine businesses for gross negligence in exposing employees to the deadly virus. According to the agency’s latest tabulation, OSHA has written up only about six dozen employers for Covid violations since Trump declared a national emergency in mid-March. The fines have totaled $1.2 million. That’s less than OSHA fined during the Obama administration, a single Wisconsin shipyard in August 2016.

The brutal consequence is that it’s not economically rational for an employer to protect workers from Covid. It’s simply too unlikely you’ll get cited, and if you are, the fine will be preposterously low. A $15,615 OSHA fine against the JBS beef factory in Greely, Colorado, assuming it ever gets paid—the employer is appealing—will be less than what the family of one JBS worker who died of Covid paid for his funeral. With unemployment elevated to twice its level prior to the Covid outbreak, it’s not as though businesses will have much trouble replacing workers who die from Covid.

Meanwhile, the same Labor Department that refuses to protect workers from the pandemic (OSHA is part of DOL) is urging state unemployment agencies to contact former employers of furloughed workers to find out whether they’ve reopened for business. If they have, the state unemployment agency must cut off benefits for these malingerers. It’s Dickensian.

Did I mention that the Trump administration and Mitch McConnell are demanding, as the price of any further Covid stimulus, a liability shield for employers that will curb even these weak enforcement efforts to hold businesses accountable?

Now Harvard’s Center for Population and Development Studies has produced a report that gives us a tool to quantify the result. (Many thanks to the New Yorker’s Eyal Press, whose excellent new profile of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia cited this paper.)

The Harvard study’s authors weighed the ingenious hypothesis that even though worker complaints filed to OSHA were almost entirely worthless to workers, given the very dim likelihood of followup by the agency, their volume, broken down by region, might be a useful tool to predict levels of Covid mortality. The worthlessness of the OSHA complaints actually helped in measuring Covid workplace mortality because a rapid agency response to complaints might conceivably have reduced mortality and thereby introduced what statisticians call “noise.” With OSHA asleep at the switch, epidemiologists had little to fear from that.

In the charts from the Harvard study that are reproduced below, the colored bars are the volume of OSHA complaints, and the dark lines are deaths per million. Nationally, mortality went up on average 17 days after a spike in OSHA complaints. The mortality spike followed quickest in the Midwest (11 days) and slowest in the West (24 days). “These patterns,” the report’s authors state, “point to a lack of learning from experiences across states, along with the lack of enforceable federal standards.” The failure adequately to respond to worker complaints, they continue, “is a missed opportunity to intervene to mitigate disease transmission in the workplace and, in turn, the community at large.”

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So how many people have OSHA killed through inaction? The Harvard study doesn’t calculate that, alas. But it does calculate that, as of mid-August, the “excess number of deaths” attributable to Covid was about 240,000. In Australia, by contrast, the excess number of deaths was 1,686. Did I mention that Australia’s population is one-thirteenth the size of the U.S.’s?

“All cases and deaths,” the study concludes,

cannot be prevented—that clearly is not possible with a novel pandemic—but the evidence suggests that ineffective national policies and responses, especially as compared to those of other wealthy nations or compared to the intricate preparation and planning by previous administrations of both parties, have been driving the terrible toll of COVID-19 and its inequities in the US. This country—and its political leaders, who bear responsibility—can and must do better.

What does President Donald Trump think about all this? “People are tired of Covid,” he told his campaign staff yesterday. “People are tired of hearing [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony] Fauci and all these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong.” Trump elaborated today at a campaign rally: “You turn on CNN, that’s all they cover: Covid, Covid, pandemic, Covid, Covid … that’s all they cover. You know why? They’re trying to talk everyone out of voting. People are not buying it CNN, you dumb bastards.”

Meanwhile, Covid cases are rapidly approaching their previous peak in July. If you’re reading this at home and not inside a workplace, consider yourself very lucky.

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Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. This piece first appeared in Backbencher. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.