Editorial: State’s occupational health agency must protect Indiana workers

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

During the initial months of the COVID-19 crisis, when those with office jobs started working from home, thousands of Hoosiers deemed essential kept going to work—in hospitals, nursing homes, manufacturing plants, grocery stores and more.

In some cases, their employers did everything they could to minimize workers’ risks of contracting the virus. In other cases, they did not.

The agency that is supposed to look out for workers in the latter case is the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration. An investigation released this week by The Indianapolis Star raises serious questions not just about whether the agency—known as IOSHA—did that job, but also whether it was even equipped to try.

The agency has received more than 6,000 COVID-related complaints since 2020, IndyStar reports. But it conducted inspections on fewer than 50—less than 1%, which IndyStar reports is at the bottom of all states.

In fact, even while a COVID outbreak at a Tyson meat-packing plant infected nearly 1,200 workers, IOSHA never sent an inspector, IndyStar reported.

And it turns out, IOSHA rarely sent out inspectors at all during the height of the pandemic. The agency, in written responses to IndyStar, said the pause in in-person inspections “reduced COVID-19 exposure for both our compliance officers and the workplaces subject to the inspections, while still providing safe and responsible regulatory action.”

And agency officials also told IndyStar that IOSHA contacted employers named in every complaint and required them to show they were following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and federal worker-safety guidelines.

IBJ has not independently verified IndyStar’s reporting. It has not talked to the more than 100 people the IndyStar reporters interviewed for the story nor reviewed the thousands of pages of public records, complaints and responses from Indiana and other states that reporters Binghui Huang and Kristine Phillips read.

But we’ve certainly seen enough in their reporting to know that Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana Legislature must act. That might mean conducting an internal state investigation into the agency’s actions. It might mean overhauling its leadership or its vision. It almost certainly means increasing its funding so it can hire more inspectors (IndyStar reports the agency has half the number it did in 1986). It probably means doing all of those things.

At a time when competing with other states is as much about being able to supply workers as it is about tax incentives, Indiana can’t afford to be lax when it comes to protecting employees. The state’s goal should be to attract more people to live here, not give them reasons to leave. And failing to act when workers complain that their employers aren’t keeping them safe is not rolling out the welcome mat.

Kudos to The Star for putting in the time and resources needed to tell this important story. Now it’s time for Indiana’s elected officials to act.•

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