Four employers were cited last week by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor for violations of coronavirus-related violations, signaling the agency’s biggest foray so far into COVID 19-related enforcement in the workplace.
A survey of OSHA’s news releases over the past few months finds statements made by the agency about guidelines and recommendations. But the actions taken last week appear to be the first enforcement actions, certainly the first instance of multiple actions announced all at once.
While none of the companies cited by OSHA are transportation-related, the citations by the agency signal that companies in all sectors need to start concerning themselves with the rules that are out there and that might be enforced against them if employers are found in violation.
The companies cited by OSHA and the size of their fines were:
— JBS Foods of Greeley, Colorado, was fined $15,615. The company, which operates as Swift Beef Co., was cited for “a violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.” That fine is the legal maximum, OSHA said. Although that wording sounds like a general indictment on several fronts, the OSHA release said the violations were part of a failure to protect employees from the coronavirus.
— Smithfield Packaged Meats in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the site of one of the first outbreaks of COVID-19 in a meatpacking plant, received a maximum fine of $13,494. OSHA mentioned that outbreak in its release and said the company had been guilty of “failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.”
— The Christus Shreveport-Bossier Health System was cited “for failing to ensure employees wore proper protective equipment” and faces $13,494 in penalties, which is also the maximum fine for that particular violation.
— CarePlus Bergen, a northern New Jersey medical company, was hit with a fine of $9,639 on charges it failed to “fit test tight-fitting face piece respirators on employees who were required to use them.” There also was a failure to properly train employees about respirator use.
Todd Logsdon, a partner with the firm of Fisher Phillips who specializes in labor and employment law, said there is a six-month statute of limitations on OSHA investigations. Violations of safety rules that took place early in the pandemic might therefore be running up against that six-month limit, which could be the reason for the bunching of several actions by OSHA, Logsdon told FreightWaves.
“If you haven’t had a visit from OSHA, you are probably not going to get a citation from them,” Logsdon said.
Logsdon also noted that while OSHA actions might be directed at warehouses, much of the trucking world would fall under Department of Transportation rules about employee safety. “I’m not sure how much attention OSHA is giving to transportation,” he said.
OSHA might kick off an investigation into an employer for any one of several reasons, Logsdon said. There are incidents that must be reported to OSHA, like an employee being hospitalized because of something that happened at work. But an employee or union complaint can also trigger an investigation, Letitia Silas, also a partner with Fisher Phlllips, said in discussing how OSHA might get on the case.
OSHA put out a press release on each of the individual cases. The statement in the case of the Smithfield action is fairly typical of what the agency said for each of them. “Employers need to take appropriate actions to protect their workers from the coronavirus,” OSHA Denver Area Director Amanda Kupper said in the release. “OSHA has meatpacking industry guidance and other resources to assist in worker protection.”