Questions And Anxiety Mount Over COVID-19 Workplace Safety As More Businesses Reopen Friday, May 29 2020 

Gail Fleck is a school cafeteria worker in the greater Cincinnati area and lives with her 90-year-old father. She loves her job because she gets to work with kids. But she is worried she won’t be able to keep her dad safe if her work exposes her to the coronavirus and she unknowingly brings it home. 

“I’m scared, I’m worried. I feel like, we’re talking about life and death here and this is my father,” she said. 

Fleck, who didn’t want to name her workplace, said she hasn’t been back to work since before the schools went on spring break. When she ran out of sick days, she stopped receiving a paycheck. 

“I’ve just worked very hard at keeping myself and my father at home and not going out,” she said. 

Workers like Fleck across the Ohio Valley face difficult choices now that states are gradually reopening workplaces. Many don’t feel safe going back to work, and adding to the anxiety is the uncertainty about the enforcement of safety standards for businesses that are reopening. During pointed questioning at a Congressional hearing Thursday a top official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not able to say how many workplaces are seeing cases of COVID-19.  

Who Keeps Workers Safe?

OSHA is the main federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety standards. Ohio and West Virginia are among roughly half the states where OSHA has direct oversight of most work safety regulations. Kentucky is among the states with a federally approved work safety program administered by the state. The Kentucky Labor Cabinet said it is working with businesses to ensure they are complying with Kentucky’s minimum requirements.

“Notes of Deficiency, and if necessary, orders to cease operations will be issued to businesses that demonstrate they are not making substantive efforts to comply with the reopening requirements,” Kentucky Labor Cabinet Chief of Staff Marjorie Arnold said in an email.

Some work safety advocates have criticized the federal OSHA’s lack of involvement in workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.

Safety and Health Program Director at the left-leaning nonprofit National Employment Law Project, Deborah Berkowitz, said OSHA should be taking more action to help keep workers safe. 

“The sad reality is that OSHA is failing here,” Berkowitz said. “They’ve actually just walked away from this whole pandemic and decided that though they could, they’re not going to do any enforcement. They’re not going to issue any mandates that are requirements, and instead, they’ll issue a poster or publication.”

Berkowitz was previously chief of staff and senior policy adviser for OSHA under the Obama administration. She advises if employers are not following the Centers for Disease Control guidance, the employee should file a complaint with OSHA. 

“Even though they’re not going to go out and do an inspection, I think they will call the employer and say a complaint has been filed,” Berkowitz said.  

She also said local health departments should be notified, in order for community spread to be prevented. Ultimately, Berkowitz said localities need to be smart about reopening and not sacrifice the safety of workers for the health of the economy. 

“But if you cut corners, and say that employers can do whatever they want at work, then most likely, you will see what’s happening in meatpacking plants and poultry plants right now around the country, and that is the spread of this disease will whip like wildfires around the workplace and back into the community,” she said. 

Heated Hearing

In an Education and Labor Committee House hearing Thursday witnesses with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were questioned about their role in keeping workers safe in the era of COVID-19. 

Principal Deputy Secretary of OSHA Loren Sweatt defended her agency’s decision against a new regulatory standard on coronavirus safety.

In questions from Democrats on the panel Sweatt was not able to say how many workplaces have reported cases of coronavirus. She also told the committee that a lawsuit against the agency, filed by the AFL-CIO, prevented her from answering some questions about OSHA’s actions. 

Sweatt said there have been at least 1,374 whistleblower COVID-19 complaints as of May 26. However, none of those businesses have been sanctioned for retaliation against employees. She said there’s no statute of limitations on investigations of those complaints. 

“While investigations are ongoing I can tell you in certain circumstances, we have seen resolution almost immediately when the whistleblower calls to initiate the investigation,” Sweatt said. 

Sweatt clarified that a resolution means a worker getting their job back as well as back pay after allegedly being punished by their employer for making a complaint to OSHA. 

NIOSH Director John Howard said his organization has just started tracking coronavirus cases in the workplace, about two months after the virus was declared a pandemic. 

“We have been getting better at tracking occupation and industry for COVID-19 cases,” he said. “We have a new case report form that we are hoping that the states will start using.”

Howard said NIOSH is now beginning to track coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants. Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have all seen large outbreaks in meat processing facilities as workers try to keep up with soaring demand from consumers. 

Back To Work

Ohio Valley workers are left to navigate a lot of uncertainty as many of them return to work amid health and safety concerns. And some state actions appear to limit an employees’ options. For example, in Ohio, the state’s Department of Job and Family Services now has a form online where employers can report employees who quit or refuse to work due to concerns about COVID-19. Officials in Ohio say the form has always been available online but has only changed focus so employers can report workers who use the fear of contracting the virus as a reason for not wanting to return to work. 

Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have been working to reopen their economies a few sectors at a time. The first sector to reopen was healthcare. Now restaurants are opening to in-person dining, as well as recreational activities, fitness centers, and cosmetology services. Many of the facilities aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic, with limited occupancy and increased personal protective equipment for customers and workers. 

Tom Tsai is an assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute. 

“The overall message, though is more important than the thresholds for reopening, is that this is not an on-off switch, but really a dial,” he said. “The states need to really consider having very clear metrics on what success or failure looks like.”

Tsai said there is already some “social distancing fatigue” people are feeling and that’s why it’s important to get the policy correct now.

“Because in some ways, once the floodgates open, in terms of trying to return to normal, it’s going to be very hard to reinstitute social distancing measures,” he said.

Scientists, Mine Safety Officials Discuss Black Lung Protections Wednesday, Feb 5 2020 

Officials with the Mine Safety and Health Administration met for the first time with miners’ health researchers Wednesday in a new partnership designed to discuss ways to better protect coal miners from the dust that causes black lung disease. In future meetings, representatives from the two agencies will discuss recommendations made by the National Academy of Sciences in a 2018 report on monitoring underground coal dust exposure. That report said the coal mining industry needs a “fundamental shift” in the way it controls exposure to coal and rock dust.

“A common theme that occurred throughout the National Academy recommendation is the need for an industry, labor, academia, manufacturers and government to work together on an investigation, training and solution related to respirable coal mine exposure,” said MSHA Director of Office of Standards, Regulations, and Variances Sheila McConnell. “This partnership comes directly from those recommendations.” 

The meeting comes as researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, continue to track epidemic-levels of black lung disease among coal miners; as many as one in five experienced Appalachian coal miners has some form of the disease. But collaboration between the scientists and the regulators has been tense. Scientists with NIOSH have been encouraging MSHA to regulate silica dust for almost 50 years, while MSHA has resisted those recommendations. 

MSHA head David Zatezelo has been reluctant to embrace the science on silica’s toxicity, saying his agency would need to wait to determine the effects of a 2014 coal dust rule. That rule strengthened protections on overall coal dust exposure but did not specifically regulate dust from silica. That wait could last at least a decade.

“Due to the decades-long latency period between exposure and disease manifestation, a medically valid study cannot be completed in the near term,” Zatezelo told a Congressional panel in June. “But MSHA anticipates the study will confirm that dramatic increases in sampling and compliance translate into reduced black lung incidence going forward.”

NIOSH has continued to release research demonstrating more severe cases of black lung disease among younger miners and showing that miners at surface sites are also at risk of disease. 

Study Shows Surface Coal Miners Are Exposed To Toxic Dust That Causes Black Lung Tuesday, Dec 10 2019 

Appalachian surface coal miners are consistently overexposed to toxic silica dust, according to new research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and surface mine dust contains more silica than does dust in underground coal mines. 

The research released Tuesday is the first to specifically analyze long-term data on exposure to toxic silica dust for workers at surface mines. The work reveals that while attention has been trained on a surge in disease among underground coal miners, surface miners are similarly at risk of contracting coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. 

Black lung disease has been identified in coal miners in every coal-mining state at both surface and underground mines. NIOSH researchers were specifically interested in surface miners’ exposure because those mines produce the most coal and, in 2017, twice as many miners worked at surface mines compared to underground mines. 

Researchers analyzed 54,040 coal dust samples taken on surface mines between 1982 and 2017 to determine the percent of that coal dust that was silica, and found that the level of silica was above the permissible limit in 15 percent of those samples. Silica dust comes from quartz in the rock layers near coal seams, and it is significantly more harmful to lung tissue than coal dust alone. 

“The exposure to coal mine dust declined over time,” said lead researcher and industrial hygienist Brent Doney. “However … when you look at the percentage of silica that was in those samples, that didn’t drop.” 

After decades of successful reduction in black lung disease through safety controls in coal mines, black lung disease has been on the rise among coal miners for the last two decades. Central Appalachia has seen a marked increase in the most severe form of black lung, known as progressive massive fibrosis. A recent investigation from NPR and PBS Frontline found that federal regulators and the mining industry knew that exposure to silica dust was a major factor contributing to the surge in disease but failed to act to protect miners’ health. 

The surge in disease is putting strain on the already-indebted federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, and as younger miners become disabled due to black lung, the strain on Appalachian mining communities continues to grow. 

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is a particularly novel finding,” NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney said. “The evidence is very clear. We know that silica and mine dust are toxic, and we have the technology to suppress it, and yet coal miners are still exposed to way too much of it. So from a public health perspective, there’s ample evidence to suggest that further safeguards are necessary.”

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which regulates coal mining, issued in August a request for information to determine whether additional regulation of silica was necessary, and if so, how best to proceed. Some critics of the administration argued the move was too little given what is already known about silica’s role in disease.