OSHA report: Iowa Capitol ‘may expose workers to COVID-19 hazards’ under current policies

By: - April 19, 2021 6:05 pm

The Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Austin Goode via Unsplash)

Workplace safety regulators have warned lawmakers about inconsistent social distancing and temperature checks, no contact tracing and no mandatory reporting of positive cases at the State Capitol.

The Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration told lawmakers on April 13 these workplace conditions at the Capitol “may expose workers to COVID-19 hazards.” Iowa OSHA administrator Russell Perry encouraged lawmakers in a letter to take “immediate corrective action.”

Ahead of the 2021 legislative session, Republican leaders encouraged lawmakers and Capitol staff to stay home if they felt sick and to observe social distancing at work. Face masks were recommended when individuals couldn’t maintain social distancing, but they were not mandatory. Several lawmakers chose not to wear masks and others removed their masks while speaking.

Lawmakers in both chambers were required to attend in person for all floor debates and committees. The Senate allowed remote participation for subcommittees; the House did not.

Several labor groups in January filed a complaint with OSHA, alleging unsafe working conditions. House Republican spokesperson Melissa Deatsch said Monday that the OSHA report was the result of a “politically contrived investigation.”

“Leadership has taken extensive efforts since January to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and will continue to do so for the remainder of the 2021 Legislative session,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, released a statement Monday afternoon condemning a lack of “basic workplace protections and mitigation measures” by the majority party.

“Republicans are forcing members of the public to choose between participating in the democratic process and protecting their own health and safety,” Wahls said.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, responded that the Senate had “maintained transparency and public access to the lawmaking process.”

“The report noted it was possible to contact the coronavirus in the Capitol,” Whitver said. “This fact, of course, is also true of nearly any other activity in the world.”

To date, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 among lawmakers or Capitol staff. Lawmakers and staff members are not required to report positive cases.

Legislative leaders do not face a fine for the COVID-19 infractions. The OSHA investigators did find several other issues, however, resulting in over $10,000 of fines. The violations were:

  • An outlet missing its protective cover,
  • Unlabeled or improperly labeled chemicals,
  • Missing paperwork for hazardous chemicals and workplace injuries.

If Capitol officials correct the violations, the fee will be cut in half to $5,219.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.