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Democrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard

Democrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard
© Stefani Reynolds

House Democrats grilled a Labor Department official on Thursday on why the administration has not issued an Emergency Temporary Standard during the coronavirus pandemic.

Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), defended the administration's efforts to protect workers while testifying before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

“In mid-May, as workers continue to face risk of infection, illness, and death, the agency is still refusing to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus,” subcommittee Chairwoman Alma AdamsAlma Shealey AdamsFrom HBCUs to Capitol Hill: How Congress can play an important role Democrats demand answers from Labor Department on CDC recommendations for meatpacking plant Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Lauren Underwood MORE (D-N.C.) said in opening the hearing. 

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Democrats, unions and worker rights advocates have called for a standard during the pandemic, and OSHA has issued guidance instead.

“With the way this virus has changed and our understanding of it, our guidance documents have been able to address what we know today,” Sweatt said, adding that the administration issues new and updated guidance regularly.

OSHA has received more than 5,000 coronavirus-related complaints, Sweatt said, and so far one coronavirus-related inspection has resulted in a citation.

The House-passed $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which is not expected to be considered in the Senate, included a bill from Adams that would direct OSHA to issue a standard within seven days to protect workers.

The AFL-CIO last week filed a petition to compel OSHA to issue a standard. Sweatt refused to answer certain questions during the hearing because of the pending lawsuit.

Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneLawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown Bottom line Jerry Carl wins GOP Alabama runoff to replace Rep. Bradley Byrne MORE (Ala.), the top Republican on the panel, noted that OSHA hasn’t issued a standard since 1983.

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“A standard at this point would be a burden on businesses already struggling ... and would do little to advance workplace safety,” Byrne said. 

The congressman compared OSHA’s response to the Obama administration's response during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

“We have followed the H1N1 pandemic strategy almost to the T,” Sweatt said.

Rep. Susan WildSusan WildCongress must act to end US military aid to the Philippines Centrist Democrats got their COVID bill, now they want a vote DCCC reserves new ad buys in competitive districts, adds new members to 'Red to Blue' program MORE (D-Va.) pushed back on the H1N1 argument, noting that the death toll is not comparable.

Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalOcasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Poll shows Biden leading Trump, tight House race in key Nebraska district MORE (D-Wash.) asked Sweatt how many workers have contracted COVID-19 in the work place, which Sweatt referred to the other witness, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Director John Howard, to answer.

“So Ms. Sweatt, are you saying that OSHA, which is the agency charged with protecting workers, is not tracking COVID-19 infections in the workplace?” Jayapal said.

Howard mentioned a new case report form his agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued on May 15. When a worker tests positive for coronavirus, states fill out fields to say what the occupation of that worker is. 

“We are hoping that the states will start using [it],” he said. 

“May 15 is pretty late for beginning to track deaths and occupational deaths and cases,” Jayapal said. 

Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerWant to prevent Democrat destruction? Save our Senate Joe Biden has long forgotten North Carolina: Today's visit is too late Mike Johnson to run for vice chairman of House GOP conference MORE (R-N.C.) said that a standard would put an unnecessary burden on small businesses, which are already struggling during the pandemic, echoing an argument from other Republicans.

Adams noted that, for the meat packing industry specifically, more than 11,000 cases of COVID-19 have been tied to Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS plants and at least 63 workers have died. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the worst worker safety crisis in OSHA’s 50-year history. Nothing compares,” she said. “Yet OSHA, the agency that this nation has tasked to protect workers, has been largely invisible.”