Employee complaints about workplace safety are on the rise, as more businesses open statewide. Always Investigating got the first COVID-related data from regulators.

COVID complaints to the state’s occupational safety division doubled in June and outnumber all other categories of concerns combined. With no set regulations or fines specific to COVID, though, enforcement in this area is evolving.

Hi-OSH is the division within the state Department of Labor & Industrial Relations that enforces workplace health and safety, alongside the federal agency OSHA for nationwide standards.

Since March 2020, Hi-OSH has gotten more than 40 workplace complaints specific to COVID, most of them in June, which saw double and triple the calls from employees in any month since the virus onset (March: 9; April: 6; May:8; June: 18).

“There are some 30,000 employers and we’re running at about 40 complaints,” said Hi-OSH Administrator Norman Ahu. “We were thinking, wow, that was pretty good for the amount of employers that we have.”

Every complaint can contain 1 or a slew of red flags. Hi-OSH has tallied 145 of them within the 41 cases. Oahu employees flagged 82 suspected deficiencies, 31 each on Hawaii Island and in Maui County, and just 1 complaint with 1 issue on Kauai.

“They’ll call in they’ll say, ‘I feel like I’m exposed to either the public or my coworker, and my boss isn’t giving me PPE and he hasn’t done policies and procedures,’” Ahu explained, “so one complaint may list several items.”

Suspected exposure comprised the majority of concerns, with 30 red flags from people worried about catching COVID from the public, and 10 feeling at risk from co-workers.

Lack of protective gear was second in complaint type, with most saying they lack personal protective equipment, and several worried about respiratory and shield protection.

The third-most-frequent category of complaints had to do with standards and practices: not following CDC guidelines, no hazard study they know of, or no policies, procedures and training specific to COVID.

The largest category of complaints came from hospitals. A breakdown of the other sectors is below.

Hi-OSH has launched inspections when allegations are of serious or imminent danger, or they will do informal contacts and guidance for improvement for lower-risk issues.

“Most of the employers we work with are really cooperative,” Ahu said. “They want to try their best because the future of their business depends on that.”

He says many employers have been able to produce proof of resources the employees had alleged were not available.

“They provide a lot of the policies and practices and a lot of the support material that they’re following,” Ahu said.

While some states have developed pandemic standards and related regulations and fines, Hawaii has not.

“It’s hard to establish a standard or a violation because it is a virus,” Ahu said. “We would say do your due diligence, be knowledgeable about the CDC guidelines, do your hazard assessment not only for COVID but any other hazard in your workplace.”

Hi-OSH says many calls are from employees worried about going back, even some wanting to stay on unemployment while the payments are high.

“A lot of them are really afraid to go back even if the employers are trying their best,” Ahu said, “And just to go back to work is one thing. They call us and say, ‘Do I have to go back to work? Can I say that it’s not safe so that I can continue to collect unemployment and all of that stuff?’ Some of them are a little exaggerated. But many are little scared. We don’t blame them.”

“Employers, if they have employees that are complaining, they should not be retaliating against them,” Ahu added. “Don’t punish them. Everybody’s trying to be safe.”


Per DLIR: “Employees should not hesitate to contact HIOSH for any safety or health concerns they have with their employer or workplace.”

HIOSH Complaint Line at 586-9092

HIOSH e-mail: dlir.hiosh.complaints@hawaii.gov

HIOSH discrimination e-mail: dlir.hiosh.discrimination@hawaii.gov

HIOSH FAX: 586-9104

Mail to HIOSH:

830 Punchbowl Street, Honolulu, HI, 96813

Employers and employees can contact the HIOSH Consultation Branch for any inquiry on safety and health issues, including COVID-19 issues at:

Telephone: 586-9100

FAX: 586-9131

E-mail: DUR.HIOSH@hawaii.gov

The HIOSH website homepage has a comprehensive collection of most, if not all, the current OSHA regulations and guidance resources for both employers and employees at: http://labor.hawaii.gov/hiosh/

Employer industry receiving COVID-related complaints to Hi-OSH, March-June 2020
Beauty Salons3
Food-Packaging-Related 2
New Car Dealers2
Security Guards and Patrol Services2
Police Protection2
Health Administration2
Billing Services 1
Bus Transportation1
Drinking Places (i.e., bars, lounges, taverns) alcoholic1
Educational Support Services1
Family Clothing Stores1
Full Service Restaurants1
Hardware Stores1
Hotels 1
Middle Schools1
Nonresidential Property Managers1
Postal services1
Respiratory Therapists’ Offices (e.g., centers, clinics)1
Substance abuse treatment centers and clinics, outpatient1
Travel Agencies1