Oregon OSHA enforces safe workplaces amidst pandemic

When it comes to COVID-19, Oregon OSHA offers no-cost, confidential consultative services for employers.

ONTARIO — As businesses have been reopening across Malheur County, which is in the second phase of Oregon’s COVID-19 reopening plan, there have been many questions circulating amongst business owners regarding protecting workers and staying compliant. These include what agencies are enforcing compliance and whether there are fines for not following guidance. It turns out that local entities are aiming to educate people about guidance, but one state agency is actively addressing inquiries, complaints and violations: Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Health department takes ‘educational approach’

When it comes to having personal protections in place — such as wearing masks, ensuring social distancing measures are in place, frequent sanitization and other details — the Malheur County Health Department nor local law enforcement entities are enforcing guidelines or handing out fines.

The health department is, however, working to arm the local business community with education about the importance of taking precautions during the pandemic. This has included online webinars geared toward specific industries, and other methods.

“We’re trying to take an educational approach,” Health Department Director Sarah Poe recently said.

However, she noted businesses could still potentially face OSHA violations. “They are laying out $8,000 to $9,000 fines for not following guidelines. That is a risk they are taking.”

After hearing about this, The Argus Observer reached out to Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and found the agency is indeed taking a measured approach to enforcement.

‘A safe and healthful workplace’

Oregon employers are required to provide a safe and healthful workplace — regardless of industry or job function, and OSHA’s function is oversight.

When it comes to Oregon OSHA’s involvement regarding employee protection it relates only to “potential worker exposure to COVID-19” in the workplace, according to a fact sheet on Oregon OSHA’s website. Other issues, such as price-gouging, sick leave, enforcement of stay home orders or addressing concerns about crowds of people at beaches, parks or other locations, lie outside the agency’s jurisdiction.

In addition to addressing employee inquiries and complaints, Oregon OSHA will also “provide advice to employers related to any potential violation of existing Oregon OSHA rules or directives issued by Gov. Kate Brown if they involve potential workplace exposure,” states the information.

Have they handed out fines?

“We have issued COVID-related citations with penalties in certain cases,” states Aaron Corvin, public information officer for Oregon OSHA.

Recent examples he included were a $14,000 fine each for a Roseburg restaurant, and a salon owner, which both opened ahead of Brown’s executive order. Another example was a citation with a proposed penalty of $2,000 for an Albany food processor for “failing to implement physical distancing measures to protect workers from the spread of” COVID-19.

When asked whether OSHA was actively in the field enforcing rules or only responding to complaints, Corvin said “both.”

“We are taking and evaluating complaints,” he said. “But complaints are not necessarily the only vehicle through which we would get involved.”

When asked whether fines were possible for not providing personal protective equipment to employees or enforcing them to adhere to guidelines surrounding COVID-19, Corvin responded in the affirmative.

“Such fines are possible. But it would depend on the circumstances,” Corvin said. “Any enforcement action we would take would be a fact-specific determination that would evaluate whether the employer has addressed this recognized hazard in a fashion that appears to be credible.”

Amounts for fines are determined under OSHA’s penalty rules, which state that a serious violation that is not willful or repeated violation carries a minimum penalty of $100 and a maximum of $12,675. However, if it is determined to be a willful violation, the minimum penalty of $8,900 and a maximum of $126,749.

According to Oregon Administrative Rules 437-001-0135, establishing penalties is done by evaluating the “probability of an accident that could result in an injury or illness.” Factors include number of employees exposed, frequency and duration of exposure, proximity to the point of danger, factors of work under stress, lack of training and supervision or improper workplace design, or other factors increasing the likelihood of an accident. A compliance officer will then determine the severity of the violation on multiple factors.

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