U.S. workplace safety agency will prioritize inspection of healthcare facilities

(Reuters) - The U.S. agency that enforces workplace safety laws has said it will prioritize work site inspections of healthcare facilities over other “essential” businesses that remain open during the coronavirus outbreak.

A paramedic wheels a patient into an emergency arrival area at a hospital in New York, U.S., April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said in guidance issued on Monday that to conserve resources, it would focus on inspecting hospitals, nursing homes, laboratories, and other “high-risk” settings that are the subject of complaints by workers.

As for other businesses, OSHA directed inspectors to send letters to employers requesting they conduct their own investigations of worker complaints and report the results to the agency.

OSHA can fine employers for violating workplace safety standards, but only after it conducts inspections and investigations.

A spokeswoman for OSHA did not immediately have comment.

The latest guidance comes as employees of companies like Walmart, McDonald’s Corp, and Amazon have engaged in strikes and protests calling for hazard pay, protective equipment and other measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The companies have said they have taken various steps to protect employees, such as providing paid leave, adding space between workstations and cleaning work sites more frequently.

OSHA has resisted calls by worker advocates and some Democrats in Congress to adopt emergency rules requiring employers to implement specific safety measures, such as social distancing.

David Michaels, who was OSHA’s administrator under then-President Barack Obama, said on Tuesday that the agency should require employers to follow guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other authorities.

“If the Department of Labor leadership thinks that asking politely will result in major changes in workplace conditions, they haven’t been watching the mounting number of disease cases in workplaces from farms to meatpacking plants to grocery stores,” said Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at George Washington University in Washington.

In a statement issued on Monday, OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary, Loren Sweatt, said the agency has for months been informing employers of their legal duties and reminding them that retaliation against workers who report hazardous conditions is illegal.

“Where we need to, OSHA will take enforcement action to make sure America’s workers are protected,” Sweatt said.

Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Jonathan Oatis