Complaint logs reveal thousands of “desperate pleas” to a workplace safety agency for protective gear by staff at nursing homes, hospitals and medical offices. Unfulfilled requests may have contributed to worker deaths, according to a new report.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has logged more than 4,1000 COVID-related complaints since March. At least 35 healthcare workers died after the agency received safety complaints about their workplaces. But the agency had “quietly closed almost all of those complaints, and none of them led to a citation or a fine,” according to Kaiser Health News investigators.

The apparent lack of oversight is a “travesty,” former OSHA official Deborah Berkowitz told the news outlet. 

Among the reporters’ findings:

  • About a third of the 4,100 healthcare-related COVID-19 complaints remain open and about 275 fatality investigations are ongoing. Two-thirds are now marked as closed in an OSHA database. 
  • One complaint said that staffers were handling dead bodies without appropriate protective gear in a room off the lobby of a Manhattan nursing home.
  • Staff at a Massachusetts nursing home that housed COVID-19 residents were asked to wash and reuse masks and disposable gloves, another complaint said. 
  • An Ohio nursing home worker reported that staff were not required to wear protective equipment when caring for COVID patients. That complaint was closed three days after OSHA received it.
  • In early June, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said OSHA had issued one coronavirus-related citation. That went to a Georgia nursing home which was fined $3,900 for not reporting worker hospitalizations on time.

It is unclear how OSHA resolved hundreds of the complaints, wrote the investigators. One nurse at a California medical center where a colleague died after registering an OSHA complaint was surprised to hear the case had been closed, though her facility is now considered in compliance.

“I’m very concerned to hear they are closing cases when I know they haven’t reached out to frontline nurses,” she told KHN. “We do not consider any of them closed.”