New COVID protections for some feds
- By Nathan Abse
- Jun 16, 2021
COVID, over the course of the pandemic, has sickened or killed thousands of feds—and endangered many hundreds of thousands more. Who was hard hit? Frontline workers across all essential areas—transportation, food procurement and service, infrastructure maintenance—and especially, of course, healthcare.
Now, a year and a half into the health emergency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration finally is launching minimum
protections for health workers, in the civil service and all other sectors. OSHA's Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), issued June 10, covers health professionals in everything from home health care and nursing homes, to emergency services and hospitals.
The ETS demands that each workplace develop—with input from employees, their unions and experts—appropriate plans to better protect workers, as well as designate responsible safety coordinators who monitor in-house compliance.
Part of these ETS-mandated workplace plans must include certain minimal requirements, such as “to limit and monitor points of entry,” “to screen and triage patients” and all who enter; to provide face masks and higher-level PPE where appropriate; to follow Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other guidelines on cleaning, ventilation and vaccination; and to have in place proper COVID training and record keeping. Although many of these procedures seem obvious and long-since necessary, they have not been in place in all health care workplaces—but they will be required going forward, under penalty of workplace safety law.
Some employee unions, who long have pushed for such federal regulations, are praising the change—with some reservations that they aren't being applied broadly enough.
“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,” Milly Rodriguez, Health and Safety Specialist for the American Federation of Government Employees says in a statement. “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,” she concludes.
The union, in its reaction to the news, clearly wants all feds and the public to appreciate the necessity of—and the breakthrough achieved by—the new OSHA standard, despite an assumption among many that such safety measures might already be in place.
“AFGE members were told by their employing agencies that they were following CDC guidance, but, in reality, that was not always the case,” the AFGE statement notes. “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.”
Even while nearly 70 percent of the country has been at least partially vaccinated, the danger of severe COVID illness persists, particularly for frontline health workers. The spread of more virulent variants, documented by the CDC, only adds to that danger. Hence, stronger regulations like the new OSHA ETS, health experts argue, will save lives.