After working through the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year, health care workers, including those working for the federal government, will finally have enforceable safety measures that protect them from getting sick on the job.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on June 10 issued an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to require health care facilities, including nursing homes, to follow its safety rules to protect health care workers from COVID-19.
“OSHA has determined that employee exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, presents a grave danger to workers in health care settings where people with COVID-19 are reasonably expected to be present and has issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to address the hazard,” OSHA said in the announcement.
Although AFGE supports the ETS for health care workers, we will continue to call on OSHA to protect all workers including front-line workers who were among those hit the hardest during the pandemic. In April, AFGE sent a letter to the secretary urging OSHA to issue enforceable safety rules as federal agencies began the process of returning employees to the workplace.
“We welcome the OSHA ETS for health care and health care support workers. They have been at the forefront, putting their lives on the line since the beginning of the pandemic, when AFGE began calling on OSHA to issue an ETS to cover all workers,” said AFGE Health and Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez. “However, we are disappointed that OSHA issued guidance and not an enforceable standard to protect all other workers. We are concerned that groups of workers who have been impacted by COVID-19, corrections workers at the Bureau of Prisons and food service inspectors at the USDA FSIS, for example, are still at high risk.”
Here’s what in the ETS:
The ETS applies to:
- Employees in hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities
- Emergency responders
- Home health care workers
- Employees in ambulatory care facilities where suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients are treated.
But there are a number of people the ETS doesn’t apply to, including homecare workers who have been vaccinated.
Here are some of the highlights of the new requirements. For more details, click here.
1. COVID-19 plan
Develop, implement, and update a plan. Conduct a workplace hazard assessment. Seek the input of employees and their unions in the development and implementation of the plan. Designate workplace safety coordinators.
2. Screening everyone who enters the facility
Limit and monitor points of entry. Screen and triage patients and everyone who enter the facility for COVID-19 symptoms.
3. Personal protective equipment (PPE)
Provide and ensure employees wear facemasks when being indoors and in a work vehicle. Provide and ensure employees use respirators and other PPE if they’re exposed to people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and for aerosol-generating procedures on a person with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.
4. Physical distancing
Make sure employees stay at least 6 feet from one another when indoors.
5. Physical barriers
Install cleanable or disposable solid barriers at each fixed work location in non-patient care areas where employees cannot stay at least 6 feet apart.
6. CDC’s cleaning guidelines
Follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for cleaning and disinfection of surfaces and equipment in patient care areas and all other areas.
Make sure that air filters are rated Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 or higher if possible. Maintain airborne infection isolation rooms.
Provide reasonable time and paid leave for employees to get vaccinated and recover from vaccine side effects.
9. Training on workplace transmission
Make sure employees receive training in a language and at a literacy level that they understand to prevent disease transmission and infection in the workplace.
If there are more than 10 employees, record all cases of COVID-19 and make records available to employees.
For those who have been vaccinated
Employees who have been fully vaccinated are exempted from wearing a mask, social distancing, and barrier requirements when they are in an area where they don’t expect to encounter a person with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.
Why we need these safety measures
These new safety measures will take effect immediately after being published in the Federal Register, which is expected to be sometime after June 14. Employers have 14 days to comply with most provisions.
These specific measures are needed because COVID-19 guidelines issued by the CDC are not enough -- in large part because employers can choose whether they follow them.
AFGE members were told by their employing agencies that they were following CDC guidance, but, in reality, that was not always the case. We filed several OSHA complaints, especially those at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but OSHA couldn’t do much without having something to cite. With this new standard, that could change.
“Workplace exposures are a major driver of outbreaks, of increases in the number of cases, so it’s important to have a standard all employers can follow,” Rodriguez added.