Lawmakers consider greater protection for federal health workers

Lawmakers and government agencies are exploring increased protections for healthcare workers amid protests over the pandemic-related safety concerns that have persisted for a year.

During a hearing of the Chamber’s Education and Labor Subcommittee on Thursday on worker protection strategies from COVID-19 Infections, a Registered Nurse with National Nurses United urged increased federal protections for health care workers, primarily by acknowledging aerosol transmission of COVID-19 and having the Administration for Safety and occupational health issues a temporary emergency standard.

“Had these recommendations been implemented a year ago, my colleague Celia, along with thousands of other healthcare professionals, would be alive today,” Pascaline Muhindura, registered nurse in the intensive care unit at HCA Research Medical Center in Kansas City , Missouri, told lawmakers.

As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had counted more than 422,000 cases of COVID-19 among health care workers in the United States and 1,397 deaths. This is almost certainly an underestimate, however, as employment information was only available in a fraction of the data.

There is still some uncertainty, however, about how much health care workers are at risk from exposure to COVID-19 at their jobs. A recent JAMA Network Open study found that most healthcare workers who tested positive have contracted the virus from diffusion in the Community.

So far, OSHA has refused to exercise its power to implement emergency standards, an option available to it in certain circumstances. During the pandemic, hospitals and health systems operated on guidance, not standards.

On January 21, President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking the agency to consider a temporary emergency standard, including with regards to wearing the mask if necessary, and if so, issue an ETS by Monday. It also mandates OSHA to launch a national enforcement program for offenders who put the greatest number of workers at serious risk.

The American Hospital Association said in a letter to the committee that such a move would create a new and rigid standard that has “real potential to add a new level of conflicting and impractical regulatory burdens to hospitals and health systems at just the wrong time. “.

“Adopting these new standards could force hospitals and their staff to make an almost impossible decision: not to conform to standards to treat all patients who need help or to meet standards and stop treating patients when supplies of OSHA equipment is needed is out of stock, “AHA said.

But virus testing, personal protective equipment, staff safety, and workplace violence issues remain largely unchecked for working nurses, according to an NNU survey. from 9,200 registered nurses, including union members and non-union members, conducted in February.

More over 80% of nurses said they were forced to reuse single-use PPE, which is almost unchanged from NNU November poll. About half reported that all patients in their hospital are screened for COVID-19 and, although more nurses have been tested by the November survey, that “is still not below the regular and on-demand tests that they receive. nurses should be able to log in, “NNU said.

The survey also found that 22% of nurses reported experiencing an increase in workplace violence, which they attribute to declining staffing levels, changes in patient populations and visitor restrictions.

“The violence has worsened over the past year,” Muhindura said at the hearing. “You see an increase in anxiety and agitation in COVID patients related to the strict isolation. “

Representative Joe Courtney, D-Conn., Reintroduced the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act on February 22, which would have ordered OSHA to create a national standard requiring health and social services employers to develop and implement a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan.

Courtney mentioned the February 11 shooting at the Allina Health Clinic in Buffalo, Minnesota, which resulted in the death of one employee and the injury of four others.

The hospital employees didn’t have “any kind of early warning system or measures in place that OSHA has been developing as guidelines for volunteers for many, many years,” Courtney said.

“But again because we don’t have a national standard, they just aren’t implemented,” he said.

Muhindura testified that his hospital has emergency panic buttons, but “not everyone has these protections across the country.”