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Adams Chairs Shocking Committee Hearing on OSHA's COVID-19 Failures

May 28, 2020
Press Release
"They just don't seem to care," says Adams

Washington – Today, Congresswoman Alma S. Adams, Ph.D. (NC-12) chaired a meeting of the House Education & Labor Committee's Subcommittee on Workforce Protections on "Examining the Federal Government’s Actions to Protect Workers from COVID-19." Today's meeting was historic as the first virtual meeting of the Committee. In perhaps the most shocking moments of the hearing, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt revealed OSHA is not tracking workplace cases of coronavirus or enforcing laws meant to keep workers safe.

You can watch the entire hearing on YouTube here.

“Today, we found out that the dereliction of duty at OSHA goes beyond not issuing an emergency standard. It even goes beyond not proactively preventing infections. Our subcommittee found out OSHA is not even tracking workplace cases of coronavirus, nor is this enforcement agency enforcing the law," said Congresswoman Adams after the hearing. "OSHA’s representative was evasive and had plenty of excuses, but had no answers for the millions of Americans who have no idea whether or not their workplace is safe. They just don't seem to care.

Adams' closing statement is available here.

The Witnesses at today's hearing were:

Ms. Loren Sweatt
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary 
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Mr. John Howard, MD, MPH, JD, LLM, MBA 
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Congresswoman Adams' full closing statement as prepared for delivery is below:

I want to, again, thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Sweatt and Director Howard for joining us for this important discussion.

First, I just want to emphasize that the ETS in the HEROES Act is not a rigid or inflexible one-size-fits-all standard that fails to accommodate changing scientific knowledge.

The text of the HEROES Act calls for an ETS to require an “infection control plan” based on the hazards in that specific workplace. It requires assessment of risks in that workplace and a plan tailored to the particular workplace. And development of the plan should involve employees. This does not require a rigid standard.

Second, California OSHA has an Airborne Transmissible Standard. It applies to COVID in health care and has not been one-size-fits-all.

What we heard today is that, in the middle of this global health emergency that is causing more deaths in less time than any other workplace crisis that OSHA has faced in its 50-year existence, OSHA stubbornly refuses to use its authority to protect this nation’s workers.  This failure to act is a stunning act of abdication by the senior leaders in the Department of Labor.  

When workers are demanding strong standards and enforcement of those standards, instead we get voluntary guidance that employers can choose to comply with if it’s convenient.  And the best OSHA can offer is threats to use a largely toothless General Duty Clause. 

When OSHA inspections do occur, they happen too often after the bodies are in the morgue, rather than when prevention can make a difference.  

When employers need clear standards so that they know when they’ve met their obligation to make their workplaces safe, instead they get vague, generic suggestions.

This is not how the architects of the Occupational Safety and Health Act envisioned OSHA’s response during a workplace crisis.  The Act tells OSHA that it shall issue an Emergency Temporary Standard if it determines workers are exposed to a grave danger or from new hazards, and that a standard is necessary to protect workers from that hazard.

Not only do the large numbers of sick and dying tell us that there is a grave danger, but it is clear that the limited actions taken by OSHA are not sufficient. 

Not only is OSHA refusing to act on that emergency authority, but the agency won’t even resume work on a long-awaited permanent standard that would address the hazard this nation is facing.

As the economy re-opens, the key to preventing an even more devastating second wave will be protecting workers in the millions of workplaces that present exposure hazards.  Yet we have no mandatory standard, and no cop on the beat to enforce safe working conditions that will be the key to preventing that second wave.  

It is deeply disappointing that OSHA – the only federal agency with the authority to enforce safe working conditions – is missing in action.  

I am not only disappointed,  I am saddened for the workers of this country who continue to lack adequate protections on the job, and when they go home will infect their families.  I am upset about the future of this country that OSHA’s inaction foreshadows. 

I can only hope that you and Secretary Scalia will wake up before it’s too late and choose to fulfill OSHA’s mission to assure safe working conditions for every man and woman in this country.

Congresswoman Alma Adams represents North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District (Charlotte) and serves as Vice Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture. Additionally, she serves on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Education & Labor Committee, where she serves as Chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee.