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OSHA Abdicates Duty to Make Worksites Safe

Without a doubt, the COVD-19 pandemic has drastically changed the lives of working people. Months ago when the pandemic first began, millions lost their jobs immediately. Some who retained employment were able to transition to working from home, yet millions are still going into work. Sadly, despite being deemed “essential” by our government and called “heroes” by corporations, these workers are almost completely unprotected on the job - six months into the worst global health crisis in recent memory.

Since March, large workplace outbreaks have grabbed headlines and driven statewide coronavirus outbreaks. Places like meat packing plants, nursing homes, and prisons where social distancing is difficult and populations are at an elevated risk- have seen some of the largest COVID counts. To be sure, these outbreaks have generated a lot of media attention, but only recently have these hot-spot industries made any discernible effort to combat outbreaks. Last week, Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat manufacturing company, created a medical clinic program to allow workers to seek medical attention at their job sites. This was only after months of outrage from workers and observers, following the deaths of eight employees. Before implementing this program, Tyson and other meat packing plants repeatedly ignored safety concerns and refused social distancing measures. Instead, they opted to run uplifting commercials to “thank” their employees, as they died from work-related illnesses.

Large employers ignoring guidelines to the detriment of employees and their communities is not exclusive to the meat packing industry. According to a recent report by the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, Prison inmates are now twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than the non-incarcerated population. In Eastern Oregon, the Snake River Correctional facility has been connected with 176 positive cases, making it one of the largest worksite outbreaks in the state. The persistence of large workplace coronavirus outbreaks can be narrowed down to one critical failure in the state and federal COVID-19 response: enforcement. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Labor, is dedicated to monitoring and enforcing safety measures at worksites nationwide. However, to date, they have completely neglected to actually enforce any sort of guideline, leaving employers completely unaccountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of their employees. Last month, Oregon AFL-CIO President Graham Trainor penned an Op-Ed to the East Oregonian outlining this issue:

“Despite the clear need for increased workplace safety, many of Oregon's legislators continue to discuss the need for “liability protections” or immunity for employers, at a time when workers need more protections - not less. Sadly, the harsh reality of this pandemic is that working people will continue to suffer until there are strong worksite-driven safety precautions in place. Returning to “normal” is unachievable until PPE is widely accessible, working people can afford to stay home when they are sick, and worksites are constantly managed and audited for virus safety concerns. When employers fail to prioritize the health and safety of their employees, customers, and communities, they must be held accountable.”

Luckily, several states including Oregon have their own state OSHA agencies, allowing them the ability to step in where the federal government has abdicated its duties. In July, Virginia became the first state to begin to provide concrete, enforceable protections to workers still on the job. The standard requires workplaces to clean and disinfect commonly used areas, implement policies for employees infected with COVID-19 to safely return to work, and ensure that employees observe physical distancing, among other things.

After months of discussion between Oregon’s Labor Movement, working people, and Oregon OSHA, the state regulatory body finally released a temporary infectious disease standard draft in August. Disappointingly, it has fallen dangerously short of its intended goal. Despite feedback from hundreds of working Oregonians, the truth is clear: Oregon OSHA, led by Director Michael Wood, has decided to follow the example set by its federal counterpart and abdicate its duty to keep Oregonians safe.

Oregon OSHA has extended the infectious disease standard public comment period until September 7th.

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