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Former OSHA head, unions: Feds aren’t doing enough to protect workers against COVID-19

Critics: Federal agency ‘Missing in Action’
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Posted at 6:26 AM, Nov 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-10 18:53:32-05

BROOKSVILLE, Fla. — Eight months into the pandemic, as COVID-19 cases rise and thousands of complaints pour into the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the I-Team found the agency has cited less than a handful of Florida workplaces for coronavirus-related safety violations.

As of Oct. 29, 179 workplaces across the country have received coronavirus-related citations following OSHA inspections. Meanwhile, the agency has received more than 11,000 complaints and referrals — 537 of them from Florida and 18 from Tampa.

Critics say those on the front lines still don’t have the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need.

I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern met ICU nurse Judy Preuss before she began her overnight shift at Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville, the same shift she’s worked for 15 years.

“I enjoy my job, I enjoy taking care of patients, but it has been very scary,” Preuss said.

Preuss said, months into the pandemic, she’s still struggling to get PPE – special clothing and equipment a healthcare worker uses to protect against infection.

“I don’t understand why we can’t get the amount of PPE we need. The sports teams seem to have unlimited testing, unlimited whatever they need, but then the nurses that are working every day with these patients and being exposed can’t get the equipment and can’t get the testing that we need,” Preuss said.

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Judy Preuss, ICU nurse at Oak Hill Hospital

Union complaint

Oak Hill Hospital is part of HCA Healthcare, a network of 186 hospitals across the country.

HCA is also at the center of an OSHA complaint Preuss’ union, National Nurses United, filed in August.

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The complaint names more than a dozen HCA medical centers and hospitals, including Oak Hill Hospital, along with six Tampa Bay area facilities: Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, St. Petersburg General Hospital, Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, Largo Medical Center, and Medical Center of Trinity.


Nnu Osha Complaint by ABC Action News

In the complaint, the union wrote, “HCA fails to notify or test all asymptomatic healthcare workers when they have been exposed to COVID-19 by their patients or co-workers, effectively causing these workers who may also be COVID-19 positive to continue working and exposing yet more essential healthcare workers to the dangerous novel coronavirus. As a result, nurses and other frontline health care workers at HCA facilities are in imminent danger of serious harm or even death.”

Preuss told the I-Team, working at Oak Hill Hospital, “A lot of patients get into the hospital that aren’t tested, and then later we find out they’re positive, so now we have nurses that have been working with the patients who’ve now been exposed. And they’re not always notified.”

OSHA requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing — and are likely to cause — death or serious physical harm to employees.

“If we’re going to be around COVID people all the time, we need more testing,” Preuss said. “It’s what I do, I’m a nurse. I don’t want to be treated like a sacrificial lamb."

HCA fired back against the OSHA complaint.

In an email to the I-Team, a spokesperson wrote:

Since the onset of this pandemic, our focus at Oak Hill Hospital has been to protect our caregivers – to keep them safe and keep them employed – so they can best care for our patients. Our frontline caregivers have shown unwavering commitment, and our efforts to protect them have included screening and testing, universal masking, contact tracing and notification, in line with guidance from the CDC. We’re proud of our response and the significant resources we’ve deployed to help protect our colleagues. Meanwhile, the NNU has chosen to use this pandemic as an opportunity to gain publicity by attacking hospitals across the country.

OSHA told the I-Team the complaints filed against HCA medical centers and hospitals are currently open and are being addressed.

Rules falls short

David Michaels, now a professor at The George Washington University School of Public Health, was the longest-serving head of OSHA until he stepped down in 2017.

The I-Team asked Michaels if workers are being protected in the pandemic.

“Sadly not. We’ve had hundreds of thousands of workers who’ve been infected and many hundreds who have died. And that’s been happening not just in healthcare facilities, but in meatpacking facilities, in all sorts of places where workers are congregating together, where workers are exposed to other workers or the public.”

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David Michaels (Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA)

Michaels went on to say the agency he used to run, “really has been missing in action. It’s taken very few steps to ensure that the nation’s workers are safe from this deadly virus.”

An I-Team review found, since the start of the pandemic, OSHA has cited the following employers in Florida:

  1. Quest Management Group, Inc. — Tallahassee
  2. Pensacola Care, Inc. — Tallahassee
  3. Healthcare Services Group, Inc. — Bradenton
  4. Braden River Rehabilitation Center, LLC — Bradenton

Braden River Rehabilitation Center made headlines in April when it, and another nursing home in Palmetto, owned by the same company, Southern Healthcare Management, accounted for 141 positive COVID-19 cases in residents and staff and 23 deaths.

“If you give workers an N95 respirator, you have to make sure it fits. But there’s no requirement that says you have to give them an N95 respirator,” Michaels said regarding masks in workplaces. “OSHA just has to rely on the old tools it has and that’s like working with both hands tied behind your back. It isn’t working."

It’s illegal for an employer to retaliate against a worker for filing a complaint with OSHA. Still, OSHA’s former leader advises workers not to raise concerns alone.

“I can’t in good conscience recommend to workers to just go to their employer and say look, this isn’t safe. The best protection workers have is with a union,” Michaels said. “If you’re going to raise concerns with your employer or with OSHA, do it as a group. You’re much stronger.”

SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the nation’s largest healthcare union, represents more than 24,000 healthcare workers in Florida.

The union’s vice president, Bob Gibson, said many of those workers are still in need of PPE.

“We’ve been told that this is something that’s going be handled by the state. Then the state says this is something that’s going to be handled by OSHA or the feds,” Gibson said. “We shouldn’t be dealing with this seven months in. It’s really tragic.”

The union says it submitted more than a dozen COVID-related OSHA complaints against Florida hospitals and nursing homes.

“We need to make sure these companies, these corporations are held accountable,” Gibson said.

After repeated requests from the I-Team, OSHA denied an on-camera interview and the opportunity to tell the public what it’s doing to protect workers.

Instead, a Department of Labor spokesperson wrote in an email, “The Department is committed to protecting America’s workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end.”

The statement went on to say that OSHA investigates every complaint and that the agency “continues to prioritize COVID-19 inspections, and will utilize all enforcement tools as the agency has historically done.”

If you have concerns about the safety of your workplace, you can make a confidential health and safety complaint to OSHA online or call OSHA’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742)

COVID-19 and OSHA

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration receives complaints and referrals about potential safety violations related to COVID-19 in workplaces. Here are the numbers from Feb. 1 through Oct. 26:

  • 11,041 Complaints received
  • 9,199 Complaint cases closed
  • 2,047 Complaints from Region 4 (incl. Florida)
  • 537 Complaints from Florida
  • 144 U.S. businesses cited with violations
  • 18 Complaints from Tampa
  • 4 Florida employers cited

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Response from a Department of Labor spokesperson

The Department is committed to protecting America’s workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end. From February 1 through October 26, 2020, federal OSHA has received 11,041 COVID-related complaints, 9,199 of which have been closed. During the same time period, OSHA received 2,047 complaints, referrals and employer-reported referrals from Region 4, of which 537 were received from Florida. The agency has received 18 COVID-19-related complaints from Tampa.

OSHA has up to six months to complete an inspection. The agency uses this time to thoroughly investigate workplace conditions, conduct employer and worker interviews, and determine an appropriate action.

A case file remains open throughout the inspection process and is not closed until the agency is satisfied that abatement of the hazard(s) has occurred. View the OSHA Inspection Process video for an overview of OSHA inspections. Details on open investigations are not available until the investigations are completed.

Alleged hazard descriptions for all closed COVID-19-related complaints can be downloaded via the Weekly OSHA COVID-19 Complaint Data link on OSHA’s FOIA page, under Frequently Requested OSHA Documents. The current data includes all complaints received and closed as of October 18. To obtain specifics regarding a closed case, please submit a FOIA request. Visit https://www.osha.gov/ for instructions.

OSHA investigates every complaint. The agency continues to field and respond to complaints, and will take the steps needed to address unsafe workplaces, including enforcement action, as warranted. Agency staff continues to prioritize COVID-19 inspections, and will utilize all enforcement tools as the agency has historically done.