OSHA Cites NJ Health Network Over COVID-19 Safety

By Mike LaSusa
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Law360 (September 11, 2020, 10:45 PM EDT) -- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggested levying a fine against a New Jersey hospital for alleged missteps in COVID-19 safety measures amid a blitz of enforcement actions on Thursday and Friday over slack responses to the pandemic.

OSHA said Hackensack Meridian Health Residential Care Inc. didn't give respirators to resident-care workers in March when the workers were taking care of patients who had COVID-19-like symptoms.

After the health network gave the workers respirators, the company failed to test the respirators' fit and didn't provide effective training and compliant medical evaluations, OSHA said, proposing a $28,070 fine.

"OSHA will continue to field and respond to complaints and take steps needed to address unsafe workplaces, including vigorous enforcement action for all standards that apply to the coronavirus, as warranted," OSHA area director Kris Hoffman said.

OSHA also proposed a $15,615 fine on Friday against Brazilian-owned meatpacking giant JBS Foods Inc., saying a coronavirus-related inspection of the Swift Beef Co. unit found problems including a failure to hand over injury and illness logs "in a timely manner."

On Thursday, OSHA proposed $13,494 in fines against Virginia-based Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. and Louisiana-based Christus Shreveport-Bossier Health System.

The agency said four Smithfield workers had died and 1,294 had contracted coronavirus in the spring of 2020, and it said the hospital's emergency workers "often shared used protective gowns or did not have protective gowns to wear while treating patients."

Smithfield's executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, Keira Lombardo, said in a statement Friday that the OSHA citation is "wholly without merit and we plan to contest it." JBS also called the OSHA citation "entirely without merit" in a statement Friday.

Hackensack Meridian and Christus Shreveport-Bossier Health did not respond late Friday to requests for comment.

OSHA said the companies have 15 business days after they receive the citation to pay the suggested fine, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director, or contest the findings in an administrative proceeding.

Prior to its recent enforcement blitz, OSHA had faced criticism from workers and advocates for its alleged failure to properly police compliance with COVID-19 safety measures.

For critics, the disclosure at a May congressional hearing that the agency had only issued one citation related to the COVID-19 pandemic showed the workplace safety watchdog was dropping the ball.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt attributed the lack of citations to the challenge of building cases that will withstand court scrutiny, suggesting the agency will act on complaints later in its six-month limitations period for citing employers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. But the lack of citations has more to do with the agency's loose enforcement approach, safety advocates said.

What's more, the Labor Department's internal watchdog said in a recent report that OSHA must do a better job of processing complaints alleging retaliation for reporting unsafe working conditions, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has caused whistleblower claims to spike.

Amid pressure from lobby groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Republican lawmakers recently introduced legislation that would give an extra layer of protection from negligence lawsuits to employers that follow guidance for protecting workers from COVID-19.

--Additional reporting by Vin Gurrieri, Jon Steingart, Kevin Stawicki and Braden Campbell. Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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