The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone's work environment in some way. Mandatory shutdowns in particular forced us to retreat from the office and changed how we work — and where. Working from home, kitchen tables became our new cubicles, and Zoom became the coffee machine we gathered around to chit chat.
But throughout the U.S., states have eased their shutdown restrictions and many workers have returned to the facilities they were previously barred from. Office buildings. Factories. Retail stores. Distribution hubs. Medical offices and other workplaces.
To ensure pandemic-focused public health in these workplaces, many companies, as well as OSHA, have expanded their safety regulations in line with COVID-19. Companies failing to comply with OSHA’s regulations are subject to be inspected, cited, and fined for violations. The key here is that OSHA has the authority to cite companies per violation, with a maximum fine of $13,494 for each instance.
Thus far, however, many coronavirus safety violations have fallen under OSHA’s General Duty Clause, making it harder to fine an organization for each specific infringement. Officially termed Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the clause states that:
“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
For perspective, in 2018, only 1.5% of 61,000+ such violations fell under General Duty guidelines. Given the potential number of OSHA violations for COVID-19, this hardly qualifies the clause as a standard safety regulation for a widespread pandemic.
In fact, since the coronavirus first took hold in the U.S., OSHA has cited only 37 establishments across the country for violations, resulting in (proposed) penalties totaling $484,069.
All things considered, these numbers seem oddly low to me. Looking back on the last six months, I would expect the volume of cited violations to be greater and fines to be in the millions. I say this because organizations like hospitals, grocery stores, and factories — where the chances for COVID safety violations are higher — have been among the most principal offenders.
Again for perspective, one company had almost 1,300 employees contract the virus, resulting in four deaths. Yet the fine they paid was relatively minimal because of the General Duty Clause from OSHA.
As we continue trying to get back to normal, I’m interested to see how OSHA handles coronavirus regulations, violations and fines going forward. Whether it be a heightened emphasis on worker safety, more fines, or other enforcement methods, I plan to follow this story and revisit the issue in the next couple months.
While we always say what's good for business is good for the environment, there’s a twist this time. I’ll put it this way:
For employees returning to the workplace amidst this unending pandemic, what’s good for their safety is good for the business.