Largest US Nurses Union Encouraged by New OSHA Emergency Standards to Protect Front Line Health Care Workers

June 10, 2021 Editor

(Originally reported in Roundhouse Movidas, affiliated publication of The Candle.)

In a press statement released shortly after the U.S. Labor Department Secretary announced new emergency safety standards requiring employers to provided stronger infection control protections, the nations largest union representing nurses voiced strong support of “the new Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) on Emerging Infectious Diseases to ensure safe workplaces for nurses and other frontline health care workers.”

National Nurses United (NNU), representing more than 175,000 nurses, wrote in its press release, [this is] “an important step forward that will contribute to safer health care settings for workers, patients, and communities.”

“Too many of our frontline healthcare workers continue to be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus.” -U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh

“After more than a year of the Trump administration’s refusal to require employers to provide enhanced infection control protections in health care settings in the face of the worst pandemic in a century, this is a monumental message that they will be held to account,” said NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN.  “The ETS means new, mandatory requirements for employers, with penalties for those who violate those requirements,” she noted.

“Too many of our frontline healthcare workers continue to be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, in a statement earlier today.

Walsh further explained, “As I said when I came to the department, we must follow the science.

“This standard follows the science, and will provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus while they provide us with critical healthcare services.”

The labor secretary added, “Given the pace of vaccinations, this standard, along with the guidance OSHA, the CDC and other agencies have released, will help us protect frontline healthcare workers and end this pandemic once and for all.”

From the rest of the NNU press release:

For Immediate Release                           

June 10, 2021

Contact: [email protected]

Upon preliminary review of the lengthy new temporary standard, NNU said there are significant requirements that will protect nurses and other health care workers and patients, and some areas that can still be strengthened as OSHA conducts updates.

Concurrently, NNU joined with other labor and health care activists in encouraging additional protections in other settings

. “All workers, everyone, deserve to be safe — on the job, in their homes, and in their communities,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN.

In the health care arena, especially in acute-care hospitals, “this standard is testimony to the advocacy of registered nurses and our allies across the country who have fought with employers to demand safer workplaces, from optimal personal protective equipment, to stronger infection control measures, to corporate accountability from employers,” said Castillo. 

“We now have an additional legal sanction for employers who continue to put their profits and budget goals over worker and patient safety. And we know that the test of the standard is dependent on our ability to enforce it to make sure our employers comply,” Castillo said.

Castillo noted that this is the first OSHA emergency temporary standard since 1983, was promulgated over the extensive opposition of and lobbying by the hospital industry and other corporate interests, and lays the groundwork for adoption of broad, permanent OSHA standards on infectious diseases for future epidemics. “We appreciate the strong support of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and many supporters in Congress, especially Rep. Bobby Scott, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor,” she added.

Among the important new requirements included in the ETS:

  • All health care employers must have written infection control safety and implementation plans, developed in consultation with non-management employees and their representatives.
  • A major step forward in requirements for lifesaving respiratory protection against aerosol transmission of the virus for nurses and other frontline health care workers caring for suspected and confirmed Covid-19 patients.
  • New requirements on notification of health care employees exposed to confirmed Covid-19 patients in the workplace, and to provide pay and benefits for those who must take time off as a result of infection.
  • Mandates on screening, mask wearing, physical distancing, and barriers in the workplace.

NNU will continue to review the full ETS and encourage measures to strengthen its provisions, added Triunfo-Cortez.

Examples of areas for improvement include:

  • Moving away from reliance on screening through self-response from patients and employees as to whether they are experiencing Covid-19 symptoms, rather than on testing, for a disease in which more than half of transmissions are known to be caused by people who are asymptomatic.
  • Stronger provisions on aerosolized transmission and the risk of infection, and on ventilation requirements within health care facilities.
  • Provisions for full isolation of Covid-19 from non-Covid-19 patients, such as establishing dedicated Covid units.
  • Ensuring a multiple-measures approach where vaccines are one important measure in addition to mask wearing, physical distancing, ventilation, PPE, and other measures to protect nurses, other health care workers, and their patients.

“Still, this ETS is a major victory for those who have worked so hard to achieve this recognition of the terrible toll on nurses and other health care workers, against the malfeasance and resistance of employers and many elected officials,” said Castillo.

“This is still a dangerous and deadly pandemic. People in the United States continue to be infected and die. And nurses and other frontline caregivers remain in danger, especially with the pullback in safety measures across the country that will likely only increase the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths,” said Triunfo-Cortez. 

As of this week, 405 RNs have died of Covid-19, among 3,908 health care worker deaths overall, according to NNU tracking data. Since the data has not been collected in many places, a full accounting may never be known. Nearly 900,000 health care workers have been infected, an increase of more than 3,000 from the week before.