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Complaint alleges Maryland agency has failed to protect workers during coronavirus pandemic

Attorneys with a Baltimore public-interest law center allege that Maryland’s occupational safety program has failed to properly investigate workplace hazards, leaving workers in danger during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Public Justice Center filed a complaint with the federal agency charged with protecting workers, seeking a “full investigation” on its claims that Maryland Occupational Safety and Health has not followed its own procedures on when to conduct workplace inspections.

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“MOSH has watched as a mere spectator as COVID-19 continues to spread through Maryland workplaces due to employer practices that violate CDC guidelines,” a Public Justice Center attorney wrote in the Oct. 16 letter to a regional administrator with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Officials with the state’s labor department, which oversees MOSH, declined to comment.

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MOSH has conducted “very few” inspections and instead forwarded COVID-19 complaints to local county health departments, the letter states, citing data the agency gave to state lawmakers: MOSH has received 492 complaints since March 1 and conducted on-site inspections in 30 of those cases.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the complaint “leaves out a number of details regarding what MOSH is doing within its purview under the law to work with local health departments and assist employers and employees with COVID-19."

Ricci pointed to steps such as answering technical questions from workers and employers, evaluating reports of worker deaths and developing guidance documents.

The new complaint stems from safety allegations at CHEP Services in Baltimore, a facility that makes and recycles blue wooden pallets used in distribution and retail. The Public Justice Center claims MOSH mishandled worker complaints there and took too long to inspect.

Through the Public Justice Center, CHEP workers filed a MOSH complaint in May. At the time, at least one worker had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and two others were suspected of having it, their May complaint states.

A manager at the Baltimore CHEP plant referred The Baltimore Sun to corporate officials. A spokeswoman said CHEP “has and will continue to cooperate fully” with the MOSH investigation, but declined to comment on the allegations because the investigation is still active.

Workers alleged the company did not consistently provide masks or respirators and didn’t require people to wear them, according to their first complaint. They said the company did not enforce social distancing or provide adequate soap and hand sanitizer.

They also made allegations about issues unrelated to coronavirus, saying much of the wood used to construct pallets is contaminated with mold and that workers are exposed to dangerous paint particulates and dust: “Workers report blue discharge when they blow their nose because of airborne paint.”

The Public Justice Center says that instead of conducting an inspection, MOSH “asked the employer to self-investigate and make any necessary modifications or corrections.”

The workers filed a second complaint in June. On July 6, MOSH conducted an inspection but “failed to talk to workers to learn about the alleged hazards and sicknesses," the letter to OSHA states.

“In the months since MOSH’s inspection on July 6, workers report that more than ten additional workers have contracted COVID-19, with several requiring hospitalization," attorney David Rodwin wrote in the letter. "Meanwhile, the employer has failed to abate the ongoing hazards.”

Maryland is one of more than 20 states that runs its own occupational safety agency rather than using the federal government’s. States may do so as long as their program is as effective as OSHA at protecting workers.

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The Public Justice Center alleges the state “is no longer providing protection to Maryland workers that is at least equivalent to Federal OSHA.”

Groups including labor unions and the Public Justice Center have pushed Hogan, a Republican, to issue an executive order requiring MOSH to put into place coronavirus-specific workplace safety regulations — known as a “temporary emergency standard."

These would address issues like masks, social distancing and notification of employees when a co-worker is sick. Hogan’s administration has called the temporary emergency standard unnecessary.

Debbie Berkowitz, who directs the worker safety and health program director at the National Employment Law Project, said that MOSH should have done an inspection at CHEP “right away” after the first complaint due to allegations of serious hazards. NELP, a workers rights advocacy group, is among those pressing for coronavirus safety regulations.

Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff under the Obama administration, said Maryland has left workers “on their own.”

When it comes to COVID-19, she said, “there are essentially no requirements that employers have to follow statewide."

State health department data shows that of the Maryland COVID-19 patients successfully interviewed by a contact tracer between July and October, 42% reported recently going to a “high-risk” location. The No. 1 high-risk location — more than 12,500 responses — was a workplace outside the home.

Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.

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