Doctor wearing protective suit to fight coronavirus pandemic covid-2019.
(Credit: miodrag ignjatovic / Getty Images)

The federal agency charged with protecting workplace safety needs to take a hard look at itself to more effectively ensure worker safety and health during a future crisis, according to testimony during a Wednesday House of Representatives’ subcommittee hearing on workforce protections.

U.S. Government Accountability Office Director of Education, Workforce and Income Security Thomas M. Costa testified before the House Education & Labor Subcommittee hearing on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s efforts to protect workers from COVID-19 and its preparedness for a new crisis.

Costa testified that data and enforcement challenges limit OSHA’s ability to protect workers in a crisis. Although OSHA issued two emergency standards — one for vaccination and testing by large employers, including senior living employers, and one to protect healthcare workers — most provisions were withdrawn after facing legal challenges. 

According to background information provided by the GAO, OSHA relied primarily on existing standards and voluntary employer guidance to conduct its COVID-19-related enforcement activities from February 2020 through June 2021. In March 2021, OSHA initiated a COVID-19 National Emphasis Program to target its inspections in industries with a high risk for worker exposure.

The June 2021 healthcare emergency temporary standard and November 2021 vaccination and testing ETS for large employers faced extensive legal challenges. OSHA announced in December its plan to withdraw the healthcare standard — with the exception of the log and reporting provisions — and in January withdrew the vaccination and testing ETS following the U.S. Supreme Court’s stay on the issue.

The COVID-19 vaccination-and-testing standard required larger employers to ensure that their employees were vaccinated, or undergo regular testing and wear masks in the workplace. 

Without COVID-19-specific standards, OSHA inspectors faced challenges applying existing standards to workplace safety during the pandemic, Costa testified. In addition, potential widespread non-compliance with injury and illness reporting by employers leaves the agency in the dark.

“As we recommended, OSHA should assess the challenges it faces in protecting workers from COVID-19 and evaluate procedures for ensuring reporting of summary injury and illness data,” Costa said. “Absent these evaluations and any warranted actions to implement their findings, OSHA may not be positioned to more effectively ensure worker safety and health during a future crisis.”

In background information provided to the committee, the GAO shared that In October the agency recommended that OSHA assess challenges it faced in responding to the pandemic and take related action. In January 2021, the GAO recommended that OSHA evaluate procedures for ensuring reporting of injury and illness data by employers, and fix any deficiencies.

OSHA Assistant Secretary Douglas L. Parker testified that COVID-19 remains a priority for the agency, which is working to finalize a permanent COVID-19 standard “to ensure that healthcare workers are protected as long as COVID-19 is a threat.”

In March, OSHA announced a proposed federal COVID-19 healthcare rule the agency said would protect assisted living and other healthcare workers from exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. Senior living and care advocates called the proposed rule “overly prescriptive” and called for broader requirements and flexibility to respond to changing circumstances.