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DES MOINES — The leader of the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has advised top legislative leaders to take better measures to protect employees who work at the Iowa Capitol from being exposed to COVID-19.
In a hazard alert letter to Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, and other top legislative officials, Iowa OSHA administrator Russell Perry said a Jan. 26 inspection at the Capitol did not turn up a COVID-19 violation but did raise concerns “of the potential for employee illnesses related to exposure to the coronavirus.”
Nonetheless, the inspection did turn up a “serious” electrical safety violation, in addition to lesser infractions, and legislative leaders have agreed to pay a $5,219.50 fine.
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Among the potential coronavirus hazards Perry recommended be addressed: Social distancing between individuals is not always practiced and not enforced; temperature checks and health screens are not being performed on all people entering the Capitol; employees are not required to report COVID-19 positive tests results to leadership; and no determination of “work-relatedness” was made of the COVID-19 cases that were reported, according to a copy of the report that was released by the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
The Capitol inspection was prompted by a complaint from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Iowa Federation of Labor.
Whitver said the “politically motivated” OSHA investigation prompted by the “now unfounded complaint” confirmed that protocols put in place in the Iowa Senate have complied with the law.
“The Iowa Senate has maintained transparency and public access to the lawmaking process, while also implementing protocols to mitigate the risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus,” he said in a statement. “Over the course of more than 14 weeks, the Iowa Senate has been notified of only two positive cases and the measures in place are working.”
While the report noted it was possible to contract the coronavirus in the Capitol, Whitver said, “this fact, of course, is also true of nearly any other activity in the world.”
Inspectors did cite a serious violation for an electrical outlet in a legislative committee room that did not have a proper faceplate and could pose a shock or burn hazard, and also cited other minor infractions. Overall, Perry said, OSHA assessed a fine that was reduced to $5,219.50 that legislative leaders agreed to, along with taking measures to abate the cited safety problems.
The inspector also said the legislative branch wasn’t keeping records of workplace illnesses or injuries and employees were handling chemical disinfectants without proper training. The original fine was proposed to be $10,439, but was reduced under a settlement agreement.
The union and representatives from six Iowa labor groups filed a complaint with the state OSHA office in January, arguing that a lack of a mask mandate at the Capitol threatened the safety of everyone who enters the building.
Iowa Federation of Labor President Charles Wishman told GOP leaders in a letter that they have a duty to provide a workplace free from hazards that could cause death or harm, and their refusal to enact or enforce a mandatory mask policy showed a lack of concern about the pandemic.
Legislative leaders at the time said they believed COVID-19 protocols were working at the Capitol with proper distancing, voluntary mask wearing and other precautions taking place, but indicated they did not think a mask mandate was enforceable.
“The worst infraction this politically contrived investigation could find was a missing faceplate for an outlet,” said Melissa Deatsch, a spokeswoman for Grassley. “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.”
House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City said legislators have a responsibility to keep everyone who works at the Capitol safe and to make sure members of the public feel safe when visiting the building that serves as the hub of state government.
“Republican leaders need to take these recommendations seriously and pay the fine,” Prichard said in a statement. “As public officials, every lawmaker should lead by example and follow public health guidelines to protect everyone in the state Capitol, stop the spread of COVID, and save lives.”
Since the Legislature convened Jan. 11, officials in the House and Senate have issued at least eight notices that an unidentified person in their chambers had tested positive for the coronavirus and that cleaning and other steps were taken to keep the virus from spreading.
“Today’s OSHA report is yet another example of how Republican legislative leaders and Governor Reynolds have failed to keep Iowans healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic,“ Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville said in a statement. “How can the people of Iowa expect Republicans to keep them safe if Republican leaders can’t even keep their own workplace safe?”
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