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OSHA hasn't issued unsafe-workplace citations over Brown coronavirus order; suspects companies improving

SCREENSHOT - Gov. Kate Brown's stay-at-home order has fueled a surge of complaints of unsafe workplaces. More than 2,700 of them claim their employers are not using safe practices or are violating Brown's order.  The agency tasked by Gov. Kate Brown with enforcing a stay-at-home order intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 has yet to issue a single citation.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, known as OSHA after its federal counterpart, has received 2,747 coronavirus-related complaints since March 2, newly released records show. At least 68 of the complaints preceded Brown's March 23 order.

The complaints have been filed by employees of a wide array of businesses including senior living homes, retirement centers, state agencies, nail salons, hospitals, pet supply stores, cannabis suppliers, flight schools, retail stores, massage salons, warehouses, restaurants, call centers, high-tech firms, wineries, gyms, and dental offices.

But while the agency has stepped up its inspections, assigning 75 compliance officers to the task, it has not yet issued any citations for unsafe conditions — let alone any "red tag" orders that can close a business down.

OSHA officials say the process for issuing citations includes significant built-in delay. If a company has been found in violation of Brown's order, no citation would be issued until two weeks after the investigative process is complete and the firm has had a chance to review the matter and reply.

Michael Wood, the agency's administrator, told the Pamplin Media Group the governor's order was issued on March 23, meaning "it would be extraordinary if we had cited anybody this quickly."

He said the agency's approach of using phone calls and letters to educate employers has produced "surprisingly good results" in causing managers and owners to agree to change their practices.

"We've had fewer folks blowing us off than I expected," he said.

He said the agency has not done a lot of on-site inspections in response to the massive flood of complaints.

But it will be doing some follow-up spot-checks to see if employers are actually making the improvements that they have said they'd do, Wood added.

Click here to file a complaint

Earlier, Wood told Pamplin Media Group the agency would take into account whether companies were doing their best, and it would also have to apply standards that were rapidly evolving.COURTESY PHOTO - Michael Wood, the top administrator for Oregon OSHA, said his agency takes into account whether agencies are doing their best to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"What we tend to do is look to the Centers for Disease Control and other organizations for guidance about how employers should be protecting their employees," Wood said.

A look at the complaints by the Portland Tribune found consistent themes: Lack of handwashing stations. Employees forced to work in close quarters with each other. Lack of hot water. Employees forced to keep working at non-essential businesses. No running water. Lack of employee bathrooms. Lack of masks. No sanitizer. Employees forced to come to work when they should be working from home, or when they have symptoms. Sick employees working despite potential exposure. Businesses that should be closed staying open.

Oregon OSHA Q &A on COVID-19

Wood said many of those complaining don't understand Brown's order. While she ordered some types of businesses to close, the governor did not order all non-essential businesses to close.

Wood said some of the complaints reflect "just tough problems to deal with. There are operations that need to go on, whether it's in groceries or pharmacies or health care, and it's challenging to do that work and implement a six-foot distance."

Asked how the agency can be confident that it is having effect, and that companies are actually doing what they claim to be doing, he said that in cases where complainants have provided names, the agency has at times been able to confirm that the company had addressed problems. He wasn't sure how often that had occurred.

In many cases, however, the complaints do not provide names and cannot be contacted.

"It's a good question and that's why we will do at least some spot-checks," Wood said.

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