U.S. Workplace Safety Rules Missing In The Pandemic Some businesses and employee advocates say they're not getting much help from the federal government to ensure workers' safety from the coronavirus pandemic.
NPR logo

U.S. Workplace Safety Rules Missing In The Pandemic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/849212026/849399003" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.S. Workplace Safety Rules Missing In The Pandemic

U.S. Workplace Safety Rules Missing In The Pandemic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/849212026/849399003" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As more businesses start to reopen and people go back to work, some companies are looking for advice on how to keep employees safe from the coronavirus. So far, the federal government has offered only limited guidance. It's encouraging workers to stay six feet away from each other, for example, and to wear cloth face masks. Some businesses and worker advocates say the guidelines do not go far enough. They are warning that could jeopardize efforts to restart the economy. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter this week to President Trump and state and local leaders around the country asking that any workplace safety measures meet two tests. First, those measures should be consistent so businesses don't have to deal with a patchwork of different rules. What's more, they shouldn't be rules at all; just suggestions. Chamber Vice President Neil Bradley argues business people know better than bureaucrats how to make their workplaces safe.

NEIL BRADLEY: Businesses want to do this right. They absolutely want to figure out how they can bring their employees back safely, but a regulatory approach that is more rules-based and less flexible just won't allow them to do that.

HORSLEY: Bradley says essential businesses like grocery stores that have stayed open during the pandemic have already shown they can figure out how to operate safely. But some of those essential businesses complain they shouldn't have to figure it out on their own. Geoff Freeman, who heads an association of grocery manufacturers, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered his members little guidance about protective gear, for example, or what to do when an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

GEOFF FREEMAN: In the absence of that, industry has stepped up. Industry has provided that direction. But it remains disappointing to us that we're not seeing that same level of clarity and direction across the board from government.

HORSLEY: The CDC has offered general guidelines for employers about social distancing, for example, but the Trump administration, which is typically allergic to regulation, has resisted making them a requirement. Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, says OSHA, the government's workplace safety agency, should insist that companies follow what CDC says.

BOBBY SCOTT: You don't need politicians guessing as to what they need or businesses themselves guessing. You need the expertise of OSHA to tell them what to do to protect their workers, and that's not taking place.

HORSLEY: Last weekend, the CDC and OSHA did issue more detailed guidelines for meatpacking plants, which typically employ hundreds of workers in close quarters and which have proven to be a breeding ground for coronavirus infections. The guidelines echoed advice the CDC gave the Smithfield Company after touring a hog processing plant in South Dakota, where hundreds of workers tested positive. The government recommended the company space workers out, install more portable bathrooms and take steps to ensure employees aren't discouraged from calling in sick. The CDC stressed, however, those moves are discretionary with no regulatory hammer to back them up. Deborah Berkowitz, who's with the National Employment Law Project, says workers deserve more protection.

DEBORAH BERKOWITZ: I was at OSHA for six years. Some companies do it right, but many companies need to know that if they don't do something right, there may be a penalty or there may be a citation. And that is sort of the incentive that they need.

HORSLEY: It's not just about protecting workers, Berkowitz says. It's also about protecting the public. More than a dozen meatpacking plants were shut down after coronavirus outbreaks. But this week, under pressure from the packing companies, the president ordered plants to stay open to avoid disrupting the nation's food supply. Kim Cordova, who represents workers at a Colorado meatpacking plant where six people died, says the workers feel powerless.

KIM CORDOVA: They're putting in laws to protect the employer. They're not enacting laws to protect the worker. These workers only signed up to process meat. They didn't sign up to lose their life over this job.

HORSLEY: As businesses of all kinds begin to explore reopening, both employers and the government will be under pressure to rebuild confidence they can do so safely.

Scott Horsley, NPR News Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEIRD FISHES/ ARPEGGI")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.