COVID-19 has affected everyone’s work environment in some way. But as the pandemic has eased throughout the U.S., states have lifted their shutdown restrictions and many workers are returning to the offices and facilities they were previously barred from.
To ensure public health in these workplaces, many companies, as well as OSHA, have expanded their safety regulations in line with COVID-19. Yet violations continue to occur, and the financial penalties that come with them don’t seem to matter.
Companies failing to comply with OSHA’s regulations are subject to be inspected, cited, and fined for violations. The key here is that OSHA has the authority to cite companies per violation, with a maximum fine of $13,494 for each instance.
Thus far, however, many coronavirus safety violations have fallen under OSHA’s General Duty Clause, making it harder to fine an organization for each specific infringement. Officially termed Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the clause states that:
“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
For perspective, in 2018, only 1.5% of 61,000+ such violations fell under General Duty guidelines. Given the potential number of OSHA violations for COVID-19, this hardly qualifies the clause as a standard safety regulation for a widespread pandemic.
In fact, as of mid-2020 when the coronavirus was still rampant, OSHA had cited only 37 establishments across the country for COVID-19 safety violations, resulting in (proposed) penalties totaling $484,069.
Those numbers are certainly higher now, but all things considered, they still seem oddly low given the expanse of OSHA’s regulatory reach. Looking back to when the pandemic exploded, I would expect the volume of cited violations to be greater and fines to be in the millions. I say this because organizations like hospitals, grocery stores, and factories — where the chances for COVID-19 safety violations were (and still are) higher — have been among the most principal offenders.
Again for perspective, one company had almost 1,300 employees contract the virus, resulting in four deaths. Yet the fine they paid was relatively minimal because of the General Duty Clause from OSHA.
As we continue trying to get back to normal, I’m interested to see how OSHA handles coronavirus regulations, violations and fines going forward. Unfortunately, COVID-19 still lingers, and safety in businesses of every kind continues to be a top-of-mind issue.
While we always say what’s good for business is good for the environment, there’s a twist this time:
For employees returning to the workplace amidst this unending pandemic, what’s good for their safety is good for the business.