Workplace safety has been front and center during the pandemic. While many workers stayed home, others say they had to work in unsafe conditions and enforcement authorities didn’t do enough to protect them.
Data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) shows more than 60,000 COVID-related complaints have been filed to the agency’s state and federal offices, as of March 28.
But NBC 6 Investigators found, so far, only a handful of those led to citations.
The 1199 SEIU union, which represents thousands of workers in Florida, told NBC 6 they were among those who tried to get help from OSHA.
Get South Florida local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC South Florida newsletters.
For months, workers from different HCA-affiliated hospitals in South Florida rallied to ask for more protection during the pandemic. Staff and their union, 1199 SEIU, were outraged when hospitals started limiting personal protective equipment (PPE) under CDC guidelines amid the worldwide shortage. Tensions grew as the two sides went into contract negotiations.
“You don’t have the luxury of complaining,” said Betsy Marville, an union representative.
Marville filed several complaints to OSHA last summer against HCA-affiliated hospitals across the state, from PPE shortages to allegations of intimidation.
The NBC 6 Investigators get results
“It’s not easy to stand up to your employer, even having your union behind you,” Marville said.
She provided screenshots and records of the complaints she filed to NBC 6 Investigators, including a letter about Northwest Medical Center in Margate, claiming some COVID patients were not separated in “negative airflow rooms.” The hospital wrote to OSHA the facility was “following CDC guidelines for placement of persons under investigation for COVID-19 or positive for COVID-19” and made “every effort” to use negative pressure rooms but they were limited.
“You know it’s either take it or leave it. And you know if this is your job and this is all you have to support you,” Marville said.
The complaints did not result in any citation.
HCA did not provide anyone for an on camera interview but Stacy Acquista, the HCA East Florida vice president of marketing, wrote in an email there were no requests for corrective actions and hospitals across the country had to deal with PPE shortages.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, the top priority in our affiliated hospitals has been to protect colleagues and keep them employed,” Acquista said.
NBC 6 Investigators found very few businesses have been cited during the pandemic for COVID-related complaints.
Data from OSHA shows 63,450 complaints related to the pandemic have been filed to the agency’s state and federal offices, as of March 28. According to records provided by the agency, 382 resulted in a citation, as of March 18. Only 11 of those citations were in Florida, involving different businesses and health care providers.
“That’s probably a product of not being able to go into the workplace,” said labor attorney Elvis Adan, adding he is concerned about fewer onsite inspections.
“You aren’t able to do as good as a job as an investigator,” Adan said.
When asked if the pandemic had an impact on inspections, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor told NBC 6, in part, “OSHA will use remote-only inspections if the agency determines that on-site inspections cannot be performed safely,” adding “OSHA has performed COVID19-related on-site inspections at healthcare facilities in Florida, including HCA facilities.”
As for workers’ concerns about limited enforcement, the spokesperson said, “The agency continues to respond to all worker complaints and will utilize every tool available to address unsafe workplaces, including enforcement action, as warranted.”
Adan said it’s important to understand OSHA’s enforcement has limitations.
“At the end of the day, these are guidelines that need to be followed to certain extent. They aren’t necessarily laws,” Adan said.
OSHA declined NBC 6’s request for an on-camera interview to discuss the complaints and agency’s enforcement.
The amount of inspections could soon increase. OSHA recently issued a directive called the National Emphasis Program, focusing on high impact coronavirus professions.