Minnesota workplace safety inspectors have been inundated with a historic level of complaints from employees worried about COVID-19.

Yet there is no specific work-safety standard for infectious disease. Connecting COVID-19 deaths to workplaces is murky at best. And all workplaces have become potentially dangerous, increasing the stakes while pinching state resources.

"With COVID, every industry has kind of turned into a high-hazard industry," said Nicole Blissenbach, assistant commissioner for enforcement at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

The Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) saw a 63% increase in complaints from March 1 through the end of 2020 compared with the prior year — a surge driven by COVID-19.

Those complaints led to 144 citations against Minnesota employers for COVID-related problems, for everything from lacking a pandemic plan to not training workers on proper use of cleaning chemicals.

Many carried relatively small financial penalties — mirroring national trends that have led to criticism from work-safety advocates. But most of the cases here remain under seal, likely because employers are still protesting the fines.

"The ones that have been resolved are probably the easy ones," Blissenbach said.

The 28 cases with penalties that are fully resolved averaged $1,300 after negotiations. They include cases against hospitals, restaurants and bars, manufacturing plants, construction firms, auto repair shops and others.

Meanwhile, Minnesota OSHA opened 12 investigations last year into COVID-related worker fatalities.

Four of the death investigations led to fines for the employers, though only one was fully resolved last year — a $3,500 fine to Centennial Gardens for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Crystal.

The nursing home, which had a ward devoted to COVID patients, failed to tell Minnesota OSHA that its administrator, Cory Edward Glad, 60, was hospitalized for COVID on April 30, and died from it June 2.

The home was cited for violating an OSHA rule giving employers 24 hours to report hospitalizations from work-related illnesses. The fine was paid in December, resolving the matter. The nursing home did not return calls for comment.

In the meat industry, Minnesota OSHA cited JBS USA for two virus-related worker deaths at its Worthington pork plant, issuing $25,000 fines for each — the highest allowed under state law.

Minnesota OSHA hit JBS with $29,400 in fines for five more "serious" COVID-19 violations. And JBS' Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant in Cold Spring — another COVID-19 hot spot — has been fined $28,000 for four serious safety violations.

Taken together, the state's JBS penalties are among the largest COVID fines in the country against a single company, federal data show.

JBS said the fines are "without merit" and is contesting them. "We have diligently followed, and oftentimes exceeded, OSHA-issued guidance related to COVID-19 at all of our U.S. facilities," the company said in a statement.

Latest COVID statistics

Counties with meat-processing plants stood out as hot spots early in the pandemic, as fast-moving outbreaks involving workers last spring led to high infection rates and temporary plant closures.

Infection rates have since declined, but Nobles County — home to the JBS pork plant in Worthington — still retains, by far, the highest per capita rate of infections, with 175 per 1,000 residents. That number is driven by prevalence of cases and aggressive testing. The state average is 87 cases per 1,000 residents.

On Sunday, the total number of confirmed cases of COVID in the state rose to 468,118 after the state Department of Health added a net 901 new cases.

The Health Department also reported 10 new deaths from complications of COVID, including five in long-term care or assisted living, bringing the state's tally of fatalities to 6,299. The fatalities reported Sunday were between 65 and 94 years old.

Although the seven-day trends in new infections and deaths have been declining since Thanksgiving, state officials are hoping the rates drop further as the share of the state population that has been vaccinated against COVID grows.

As of Sunday, nearly 10% of the state's residents have gotten at least one dose of the two-dose vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. About 156,600, or nearly 3%, have had both doses.

Workplace complaints rise

With supply limited, it may take months for the vaccine to have a notable impact on workplace transmission, keeping pressure on regulators to guard worker safety.

At the federal level, OSHA has been criticized by labor unions and work-safety advocates for moving slowly on COVID-19 hazards and issuing what they see as low fines to offending employers.

Minnesota is one of 21 states with its own full OSHA program, which means federal guidelines serve as its starting point, but it can adopt more expansive rules if needed.

Between March and December last year, Minnesota OSHA received more than 18,000 e-mail and phone inquiries about potential workplace safety problems — a 250% increase over the same time a year ago, fueled by COVID-19.

But inspectors focus mainly on "formal complaints," which are written assertions of "imminent danger" to workers or alleged safety violations that expose employees to physical harm.

Of the 278 formal complaints investigated by Minnesota OSHA between March 1 and Dec. 31, more than half — 150 — involved allegations related to COVID-19, such as failing to ensure masking and having sick workers stay home.

A new standard

Work-safety experts across the U.S. say regulators are at a disadvantage: They lack a specific infectious disease standard for all employers.

Without that, records show, inspectors often use a catchall standard in workplace law called the general duty clause, which requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards. Minnesota OSHA wielded that rule in its fines against JBS.

Indeed, the agency has cited the general duty clause in about half of its COVID-related penalties — far more than usual.

General-duty citations can be easier for employers to fight than more specific violations, workplace safety experts say.

Even in cases where workers died, it's difficult for regulators to sort out whether a worker died from a virus contracted at work — and, therefore, whether an employer bore any responsibility.

"It really is kind of a dilemma that OSHA has not faced before," said John Mendeloff, a University of Pittsburgh professor and work-safety policy expert. "I think there is a special difficulty dealing with something that is episodic."

President Joe Biden's administration set a March 15 deadline to issue a s specific "emergency temporary standard" for COVID-19.

Work-safety experts have applauded the idea, while noting employers are likely to battle it in court.

"There is a high bar for an emergency temporary standard," said Celeste Monforton, an occupational health and safety expert at Texas State University. "You are making a case that there is a grave danger."

The Minnesota Labor Department's Blissenbach said she would welcome an emergency temporary standard from the Biden administration.

Still, she said the general duty clause has worked because OSHA has based its use on specific COVID workplace guidelines from Gov. Tim Walz's administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.