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What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Worker Safety; Pandemic Exposes Failures in Workplace Safety

By BAGOLIE FRIEDMAN INJURY LAWYERS, Correspondent | August 16, 2021 | NEW JERSEY

Story No. 081621110

The COVID-19 pandemic hit another tragic milestone in August, taking the lives of more than 600,000 Americans. While the last 16 months have been a terrifying experience for all Americans, it has been perilous for those who must work outside the home.

Over 3,600 healthcare workers died in the first 12 months of the pandemic. Among those workers, people of color and lower-paid workers who handled everyday patient care were far more likely to die than physicians. Another study showed that workers in the restaurant and agriculture industries saw a 40 percent increase in death rates, the highest during the pandemic. Warehouse, delivery, grocery, and retail workers also suffered from a higher rate of COVID-19 illness and death.

Certainly, the majority of employers have tried to protect their employees from the ravages of this disease. But too many businesses – especially huge corporations – have put profits ahead of worker safety.

Workers in Peril

Here are examples of how some companies and government regulators failed to adequately protect workers from the pandemic:

-Meatpackers
Meatpacking plants have been a hotbed for COVID-19 transmission. One study showed that a large industrial meatpacking facility increased county per capita infection rates by 20% to 160%. Workers and their families claim that these plants ignored evidence of rising infection rates and instead implemented policies and practices that facilitated rather than diminished transmission.

-Warehouse Workers
New York State Attorney General Letitia James has filed suit against Amazon, saying the company “has repeatedly and persistently failed to adequately protect its workers in two New York City facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic and has even retaliated against those who voiced concerns.” Amazon's profits rose 220% during the pandemic.

-Nursing Home Residents and Staff
Numerous reports have shown a massive breakdown in corporate and government oversight of infection management at thousands of nursing homes, contributing to skyrocketing deaths among residents and staff. Yet, many states have passed or are considering laws that give nursing homes immunity from legal action related to negligent care during the pandemic.

-Grocery Workers
Grocery workers have suffered a significant percentage of pandemic deaths, all while profits grew exponentially. And these workers aren’t out of the woods yet. Reports show the number of grocery workers infected or exposed to coronavirus has climbed 24% since March 1st, while deaths from the virus have jumped 30%.

-Regulators
Government oversight is also under scrutiny. Investigations show that the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has been lax in inspecting or reporting meatpacking plants. Response to worker complaints has been slow, and OSHA issued few penalties to employers. These complaints allege failures to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing, managers pressuring sick employees to continue working, and a lack of employee notification about co-worker infections.

The legal options for holding companies accountable for exposing workers to COVID-19 are limited and under attack. It is tough to prove that a worker was infected while on the job, especially in industries like meatpacking, where many workers live or travel to and from work together. Meanwhile, business interests are pushing immunity laws that shield companies from lawsuits related to COVID-19 injury or death unless the worker can prove gross negligence, willful misconduct, or failure to follow public health orders.

Minimizing Workplace Transmission

Protecting yourself and coworkers from contracting coronavirus remains critical, especially as infections spike with the Delta variant. Here are some ways to help prevent transmission in the workplace:

-Keep up to date on all state, city, and county regulations in regards to COVID-19.
-Encourage your local and state policymakers to prioritize workers, and further protect communities from this pandemic.
-You may or may not be living in a high-transmission community. Check out the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) page for weekly data on the county you live in.
-As always, follow health, hygiene, mask, and social distancing guidelines as the pandemic continues.
-Get vaccinated if you can! Go to Vaccines.gov to find a provider near you.

This article is a direct street report from our correspondent and has not been edited by the 1st Responder newsroom.