More than 330 complaints describing dangerous working conditions related to COVID-19 have been submitted to the state since March 1, according to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Those reports led to a more than doubling of complaints about dangerous working conditions versus the same period last year but the state's mandate-light response to the pandemic has hamstrung regulators' ability to investigate the reports they've received.
The reports include multiple accounts of a lack of personal protective equipment at health care facilities, of essential businesses not abiding by state and federal guidelines and of employees fearful of losing their jobs if they refuse to work in unsafe conditions. Complaints related to the coronavirus pandemic began rolling into the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration on March 12, the day Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency due to the outbreak. The first complaint reported a lack of personal protective equipment in a health clinic.
Appropriate PPE is not provided to staff for this now classified pandemic coronavirus. Our Governor has now declared a stated of emergency yet our front line urgent care clinic management is not considering it a community public safety risk.
Mask are not being provided to "sick" patients as we have been directed to do so by the Tennessee Department of Health.
We as staff were told today to NOT test patients and send them to he Emergency Room which poses a great public health issue. Not only are measures not taken to prevent the spread of this virus they are not protecting their employees.
From there, hundreds of complaints — from manufacturing plants, health care facilities, corporate offices, construction sites and other workplaces — have filed into the state agency at an unprecedented rate, according to Assistant Administrator Larry Hunt, who has been with the department for more than 20 years. Last week, when most nonessential businesses were able to return to operations at limited capacity, including restaurants, retail stores and gyms, several complaints were submitted by workers afraid of returning to work.
I do not feel safe due to COVID-19. When they asked if we wanted to come back to work, they said all employees had to wear masks and gloves and would be getting their temperatures taken before entering the store. They are providing masks, but no gloves. They have also not taken temperatures. Only about 25% of employees are wearing masks. As we know, masks prevent he person wearing them from spreading the virus, but it doesn’t prevent people who are wearing masks from getting it. Also, the store is supposed to be closed, but the door is unlocked due to contracting work happening inside and outside. Customers have come into the store without wearing masks trying to shop and we have had to tell them to leave. They said when the store opens to the public, they will be providing masks, but customers are not required to wear them. I don’t feel safe working if customers are not required to wear a mask. I know they are just following the guidelines for our state in regards to customers, but I WAS told employees would be wearing them right now and they are not. All employees will be required to wear masks when customers are in the store, however. My anxiety has been so bad about working that this morning I was sobbing so bad on my way I almost threw up.
In total, the agency received 532 complaints of hazardous working conditions in March and April this year versus 265 in the same time frame of 2019. Many of these claims were anonymous, according to TOSHA, who could not release the names of businesses subject to the reports.
According to Chris Cannon, director of communications for the labor department, TOSHA has so far closed 319 of the inquiries related to COVID-19, which involves sending a letter to the employer informing them of the complaint. No other actions beyond sending a letter have been taken to address the claims.
“Those types of complaints, where there is no rule or standard to address, we are not really taking any action,” Hunt told the Nashville Post. “We are letting them know we don’t have jurisdiction over those issues. We do still forward an informational letter to the employer as a reminder of things they can do to protect their employees.”
Lee last week launched an aggressive strategy to reopen the state's economy, allowing most nonessential businesses to begin operations at limited capacity and making social distancing, health and safety guidelines optional for these businesses, touting Tennesseans' willingness to do what is right.
Because of this recommendations-over-rules approach, most COVID-19 complaints are not investigated beyond the letter-sending process because the guidelines are unenforceable by TOSHA. Instead, Hunt said if a claim is egregious enough, officials could possibly take action under existing TOSHA laws. That has not yet happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We would have to identify that they violated the standard in order to issue a citation. That would be difficult,” Hunt said. “If an employer took no action at all and they had reasonable cause to know that they had a hot spot — let’s say they had five or six employees in a setting where it was tightly packed and the employer was aware that they had employees infected with COVID-19 and they took literally no action — possibly then it could rise to a general duty cause of violation.”
No other department has jurisdiction to enforce the COVID-19 guidance released by the state and the Department of Labor does not have another support system for workers seeking help from dangerous working conditions, according to Cannon. TOSHA does not share complaints it receives with other departments or state agencies, including reports about a lack of PPE in health care facilities where COVID-19 was present and essential workers in factories working alongside sick individuals all day.
Here are some of the complaints submitted to TOSHA in the past two months
March 16, 2020 — Employees are being asked to work in an unsafe environment, in our facility we use the plastic Duran, and o her various powders when we make clear aligners for peoples mouths, we are normally supposed to use N95 masks while in the facility, as there Are constantly suspended dust clouds in the facility from the manipulation of our materials.
As of today we still have a decent backlog of work and quotes and are staffing the phones, computers, web sites, and the occasional fax to promote, close and enter sales orders to produce as quickly and efficiently as possible for there are multiple people on sight with possible exposure to COVID-19. While many people have been calling out of our facility, for sickness, and other illness there are many people in the facility who have been coughing with wet runny noses, and problems breathing. Days ago we had a team member pass out on our lines.
Personally I have asthma and am very concerned for my health and well being, however i also believe that the facility could be putting thousands of people at risk as we produce well over 20,000 aligners every 12 hours or so.
March 18, 2020 — We are not a medical facility, we are a drug & alcohol rehabilitation facility. We do not have Medical staff on- site 24/7. Our supervisors are only making small changes in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak. They are still bringing new Clients in from all over TN and said they will not stop bringing new clients in un il forced by the state. We are being made to come in close contact with clients to check temps but we are not being provided any PPE and most of us have no medical training other than CPR. Myself and several more employees are ready to quit because we feel very unsafe and feel our concerns are not being taken seriously.
March 25, 2020 — We have employees KNOWN to have been exposed to Coronavirus... at least 4 people in direct contact, plus additional staff by proxy of children who attend Midway grade school.
The owner is demanding we all come to work, even if we are sick, even if we have letters from schools or o her locations letting us know our families have been exposed and we need to quarantine OURSELVES. Anthony has been accused of telling those staff to *get back to work*, *he doesn't care* and *it's fine*
He is knowingly and intentionally exposing at least 2 plants full of staff to potential carriers of Coronavirus, with the addition of threatening to fire people who are sick due to their *points*... some are coming wi h fevers, some at the point of passing out, some coughing on EVERYTHING they touch, because they're afraid to lose their jobs.
They also allow dipping and the several of the roofers and some other staff, plywooders and metal hangers, who do spit EVERYWHERE. On the floor "towards the trash can" in cans labeled recycling, and wherever they happen to be standing. The floor of he factory has spit randomly all over the place and several tasks require kneeling or crouching on the floor in several areas... some of the people spitting everywhere are also sick with coughs and flus...
Homesteaders is a petri dish of illnesses and they refuse to close unless the government intervenes on our behalf.
Several of us are immune compromised or have family that are. We are in very real risk of infection and need help!
April 3, 2020 — An employee in with now- known coronavirus-19 was advised by a REDACTED walk in clinic that they could return to work before test results came back. When they came back positive she had been at work for several days exposing multiple employees and likely many members of the general public. All contacts should be out on quarantine for least 7 days and obviously with this employee having been infected she has unintentionally contaminated this site posing a major risk for the general public.
April 5, 2020 — Employer not following CDC guidelines, no social distancing, workers not washing hands, blowing nose and returning to work, nasal drainage coming from workers nose near product, have witnessed human hair being on product, line lead pulled hair off product and retuned product to line. No hand sanitizer available, workers being given one disposable isolation gown to wear for entire shift during breaks/lunch gowns are removed and placed on a hook practically on top of one another, when workers return from break they may or may not get the same gown that may have potential germs, very nasty bathrooms, workers stashing soda bottles under bathroom sink and have been seen removing shoe and pouring water over bottom of feet and scrub with bare hand and return to production without washing hands. Workers sitting practically in one anothers lap in break room in the middle of a pandemic as opposed to maintaining social distance. Workers chewing gum while working on production line
April 11, 2020 — EMPLOYEES ARE WORKING WITH KNOWN COVID-19 POSITIVE PATIENTS AND SUSPECTED COVID- 19 POSITIVE PATIENTS WITHOUT PROPER PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT. EMPLOYER HAS PROVIDED HEALTHCARE EMPLOYEES WITH NO MASK FOR PERSONAL USE TO DATE. THERE IS NO ALCOHOL BASED HAND SANITIZER AVAILABLE FOR EMPLOYEE USE.
April 14, 2020 — Not using mask or gloves and seeing patients. Employees are potentially being exposed. I was a Employee that called out with a cough and asked for time off (unpaid) til May 1st because of age and health condition was dismissed and said that I resigned prohibiting me to file unemployment. Lack of cleaning product feel pushed out due to my age and dear of catch the virus. We could not properly disinfect areas and employees take temperatures without gloves.
I was REDACTED and demeaned for having converted on several occasions by the owner/doctor. She said I was stupid to watch the news and that she didn’t want to be bothered with my concerns again. My boss told us that is we had issues or felt unsafe she would terminate us so we could file unemployment then she would rehire us. She later said I resigned when I asked for that or to be allowed to take UNPAID time off until May 1st.
April 18, 2020 — COVID 19 not taken seriously. REDACTED has said he has the virus, but he is s ill working, hasn’t been sent home, and hasn’t been tested for it. Since hey started temperature checks, multiple people have had 101 degrees or more in fevers and they still sent them inside to work. They will not allow anyone to leave if they are sick or if a family member is sick under any circumstance. During these times, they are not following any of the safety rules and regulations that have to do with COVID 19.
April 20, 2020 — Confirmed cases of COVID-19 starting April 9th. Employees are still being required to come to work even though the employer can't gaurantee that social distancing will be followed. There are now 15 cases of COVID-19 including REDACTED . They will not allow us to use out PTO to stay home until the virus has passed.
April 30, 2020 — There are 10+ employees in ICU who have been diagnosed with COVID including 1 employee that died after constantly being staffed with COVID patients and the other 9 employees have all been staffed in the COVID section of ICU at some time because we were told “everyone must rotate” even after some employees have asked to be placed over there consistently. REDACTED is not protecting its employees being exposed, not providing education on care of COVID patients and has no type of coverage in place for pay or insurance matters should an employee catch the virus. Please investigate.
For a full list of complaints submitted to TOSHA during March and April, click here.
This post originally appeared in our sister publication, the Nashville Post.