Oregon OSHA Confronts Record Complaints Amid New Coronavirus Workplace Rules

By Sage Van Wing and Rob Manning

Coronavirus concerns have led Oregon’s workplace safety agency to receive over 2,000 complaints in recent weeks — as many as it normally gets in a year. Officials say they fall into two main camps: questions about whether certain businesses should be open at all and more specific concerns about how businesses that are allowed to stay open can do so while maintaining the health of their workers and customers.

The head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Michael Wood told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” Tuesday that his agency is prepared to handle the spike in complaints.

“Our process of handling complaints, it turns out, is surprisingly scalable — and while we’ve had to put additional staff on it, and they’ve worked additional hours, we have been able to manage the workload, even though it’s much, much greater,” Wood said.

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Wood said some of the complaints relate to whether certain businesses should be operating at all. Those are easy to answer, because Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order spells out the types of businesses need to close and which don’t.

Other complaints reflect the changing regulatory landscape that businesses are trying to navigate. For instance, Wood said, masks or facial coverings are now recommended, especially in crowded workplaces.

“Employees certainly should be allowed to wear homemade facial coverings,” Wood said. “There are a lot of employers who are under the mistaken belief that if they allow someone to wear those kinds of facial coverings that they have to comply with the OSHA and OSHA in Oregon respirator protection standards. That’s not true.”

Health officials in Oregon started recommending facial coverings last week, especially in indoor places where maintaining at least 6 feet of social distance isn’t possible.

Workers told OPB that businesses have posted signs or marked floors to remind customers and workers to follow social distancing guidelines. But workers said there’s a lack of training and enforcement to ensure the rules are having their intended effect inside businesses.

“In a way, this catches us all flat-footed,” Wood said, arguing that his agency prefers to have months to roll out new rules to ensure compliance. “Obviously, in this case, when we’re dealing with a pandemic and we’re trying to stop it in its tracks, we didn’t have the ability to do that.”

Wood encouraged workers — and customers — to call OSHA if they’re concerned that businesses are not following the executive orders related to coronavirus containment.

Wood noted that it’s illegal for businesses to retaliate against workers who report problems or ask questions about safety.

And he said even if OSHA weren’t dealing with record-high complaint numbers, tips are more likely to result in clarifying phone calls to the employers than on-site inspections.