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FOX 13 Investigates: Utah OSHA has inspected only a few workplaces accused of COVID-19 problems

Posted at 10:09 PM, Nov 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-04 17:45:43-05

SALT LAKE CITY — He and his wife have compromised immune systems.

So when a Salt Lake County retail worker worried his employer wasn’t doing enough to protect him from the coronavirus, he filed a complaint with the agency that oversees worker safety – the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division. It’s better known as OSHA.

“I was kind of looking,” said the worker, who asked he not be identified for fear of losing his job, “for more guidance on how we could better meet the requirements and how I could be protected and protect my family from something that is much more life and death in our situation than it is for a normal family.”

A log obtained by FOX 13 through a public records request shows from February through mid-October, Utah OSHA received 149 complaints about workplaces accused of not doing enough to protect workers. Yet Utah OSHA has only conducted four pandemic-related inspections.

Those four workplaces did not receive any citations or fines.

A FedEx facility in North Salt Lake is one workplace where someone complained, yet no inspection ensued.

“Many bathrooms are not in working conditions and are running out of soap,” read the complaint from April. The Davis County Health Department confirms there were 12 infections at the FedEx facility.

One person in June complained employees of Burton Lumber in Salt Lake City were testing positive for the virus, according to the log, and not quarantining and employees there weren’t wearing masks either. The Salt Lake County Health Department says 16 workers at that Burton Lumber location tested positive for the virus. A representative of the company declined to comment.

Utah OSHA received multiple complaints about conditions at Salt Lake City International Airport, where the state health department says there have been at least 287 infections among employees and construction workers.

The complaints aren’t necessarily unusual, even in a pandemic, said Lauren Scholnick, an employment attorney in Salt Lake City.

“When employees are complaining about insufficient PPE,” Scholnick said, “when they’re complaining that they don’t have running water, when they’re complaining that there’s not soap provided to wash hands in certain places, and those are known ways to restrict or control COVID in the workplace, those are things that OSHA would look at.”

One of the few Utah workplaces that has received a pandemic-related inspection is the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, where Utah OSHA found 441 infections and that one person died from COVID-19. While Utah OSHA did not issue any citations or fines in Hyrum, workplace inspectors in Colorado found a JBS plant in Greeley had inadequate protections for workers and didn’t properly log injuries.

Six workers from that plant died of COVID-19, and OSHA in Colorado has proposed a fine of $15,615.

The log and inspection records show that in a few cases, Utah OSHA has contacted the employers and worked out the issues. In nearly every other instance, documents show, Utah OSHA has referred the complaints to the state or local health departments.

Utah OSHA is overseen by the state Labor Commission. Its spokesman, Eric Olsen, said every complaint is screened.

“First, we’re going to look, who’s making the call?” Olsen said. “It needs to be a current employee or employee representative like a spouse or a union representative or even a parent that calls and makes that complaint. It can’t be an ex-employee that’s angry because they got fired and is trying to get somebody in trouble.”

But Olsen said it’s not clear what inspectors are supposed to be looking for.

“Rules and regulations on the state and federal level regarding COVID, there aren’t any yet in place for us to follow,” Olsen said.

U.S. OSHA, which has oversight for how Utah and other states run their worker safety offices, has created a webpage dedicated to telling compliance officers what the standards are.

Federal OSHA has used existing rules to cite 112 employers across the country for many of the pandemic issues also reported by workers in Utah, according to a list published by the agency. For example, in Connecticut, which has a population only about 10% greater than Utah’s, OSHA has cited seven employers.

“So OSHA has broad discretion as to when it might do an investigation,” Scholnick said.

It’s not clear what’s happening to the referrals Utah OSHA reports it’s making to health departments. Spokespeople from the Utah Department of Health as well as the health departments in Salt Lake and Utah counties all say they have no record of receiving referrals from Utah OSHA.

One of OSHA’s jobs is to investigate workplace deaths, but Olsen and a spokesman for the state health department say there is no mechanism to inform Utah OSHA when contact tracers determine someone caught COVID-19 on the job and dies.

Jeff Worthington represents manufacturing and transportation workers as president of the Utah AFL-CIO. He believes OSHA could do more inspections, but also wants state and federal politicians to set clearer rules for protecting workers from the coronavirus.

“It’s hard to take a state agency like OSHA,” Worthington said, “and say it’s your fault that this happened at this meatpacking plant when we don’t really have strict guidelines.”

Scholnick says the lack of oversight might leave workers with no where to seek help.

“If they can’t go to the government agency that is vested with the obligation to look into unsafe workplaces, then I think they tend to throw up their hands,” Scholnick said.

Olsen wants concerned workers to keep making reports to Utah OSHA. Complaints can by made by calling 801-530-6901 or on Utah OSHA’s website.

“We would hope that employees would bring that to our attention,” Olsen said, “because then we could at least get it started through the process and see if there’s something that we could do about it. If there’s not a specific statute maybe there’s something else we can look at that can help make that a safe workplace because every employee deserves a safe workplace.”

The retail worker says OSHA referred him to the health departments and took no other action on his complaint. His employer eventually let him work from home, but he says his boss can change his mind at any time.

“I am absolutely dissatisfied with OSHA,” the worker said, “and most of the regulations that have been put in place for worker protections.”

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