COVID-19-related OSHA complaints, fines pile up for healthcare facilities

Dive Brief:

  • The Occupational Health and Safety Administration announced another $471,337 in fines Friday for safety violations related to the COVID-19 pandemic, covering the last week of October. Among 32 workplaces cited, 30 were healthcare facilities, including one ambulatory service in New York and an HMO medical center in New Jersey.
  • Nursing and residential care facilities received the bulk of citations, followed by general medical and surgical hospitals. Violations include failing to provide training on the proper use of a respirator and personal protective equipment, failure to report injury, illness or fatality and not complying with OSHA’s general duty clause.
  • As of Thursday, healthcare notched 2,421 COVID-19 related complaints, followed by retail trade and restaurants. Within healthcare, hospitals hold the most with 720 complaints, followed by nursing homes with 404 and offices of physicians with 235.

Dive Insight:

Healthcare facilities overwhelmingly hold the most COVID-19 related workplace safety complaints among all industries, according to data from OSHA. And they’re picking up the bulk of fines as the agency opens and investigates the allegations.

Before the pandemic, OSHA traditionally issued releases citing a single employer after receiving a complaint and completing an investigation, detailing the violations found and fines it would impose.

Around October of this year it started issuing a slew of citations and fines combined in a single release format.

So far OSHA has issued $2,496,768 in fines for safety violations related to the pandemic.

Friday’s highest penalty went to New Jersey Addiction Treatment Center, a residential mental health and substance abuse facility, for $26,988.

Other high penalties went to nursing homes, including a $25,061 fine for Marlborough Hills Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center and a $24,097 fine to Attleboro Medical Investors, both in Massachusetts.

Two hospitals received fines over $20,000: Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center in New Jersey was fined $23,133 and Steward Holy Family Hospital in Massachusetts was fined $20,820.

Among the five hospitals cited in Friday’s release, four are unionized. Among every facility cited last week, 18 are unionized and 14 are not.

Eric Conn, chair of the national OSHA workplace safety practice group at law firm Conn Maciel Carey, said there’s a concerted effort at organized workplaces to file these complaints.

In August, the country’s largest nurses union filed a complaint with OSHA alleging workplace safety hazards at 17 HCA hospitals it wanted the agency to inspect.

And on Oct. 29, labor unions representing hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers teamed up to sue U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia and OSHA for failing to impose a standard to protect workers from infectious diseases.

“OSHA was getting a lot of really bad press about how aggressively they were responding to the virus,” Conn said. “And as a show, as maybe for some theater, they have focused on healthcare, because it’s easy.”

Healthcare might be seen as “low-hanging fruit” for OSHA because the complaint data is there and virus risks are greater for workers directly dealing with infected patients, Conn said.

OSHA spent the first few months of the pandemic putting out guidance on how COVID-19 transmits and what steps employers can take to protect workers from getting sick, Conn said.

Then it began investigating those claims, which carry a six month statute of limitations.

OSHA has jurisdiction over a majority though not all of the states. Twenty-two states have their own state OSHA agency covering private sector and local government workers, and six have an agency that exclusively covers state and local government workers.

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