Federal Employees News Digest

New COVID regs for feds in healthcare

COVID, over the course of the pandemic, has sickened or killed thousands of feds—and endangered hundreds of thousands more. Who got hit hardest? Frontline essential workers—transportation, food procurement and service, infrastructure maintenance and, of course, first responders and especially healthcare. 

Now, a year and a half into the health emergency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) finally has issued minimum protections for health workers in the federal civil service and 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 concerns they may not apply 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 [our union] 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 (AFGE) said in a statement. “However, we are disappointed that OSHA issued guidance and not an enforceable standard to protect all other workers.” 

Rodriguez said the union was concerned that many “impacted by COVID-19, corrections workers at the Bureau of Prisons and food service inspectors at the USDA FSIS, for example,” remained “at high risk.” 

The union, in its reaction to the news, clearly wanted to communicate its view that the OSHA standard was both a necessity and a very real achievement—especially wanting to dispel a misconception that such safety measures were already 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 with a partial vaccination or full vaccination rate approaching 70 percent, the danger of severe COVID illness persists, particularly for frontline health workers. Increasing reports of more virulent variants and their spread underlines that danger. Hence, stronger regulations like the new OSHA ETS, health experts maintain, are needed to save lives. 

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2021 Digital Almanac

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