NYSNA Statement: On OSHA’s COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 24, 2021
Contact: Kristi Barnes | kristi.barnes@nysna.org | 646-853-4489

OSHA recognizes healthcare workers are in “grave danger,” but comes up short in ETS for airborne transmission of infectious agents

Nurses and healthcare professionals call for a permanent OSHA standard that protects the health and safety of all workers

New York, NY - The New York State Nurses Association commends the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for issuing an emergency temporary standard (ETS) on COVID safety in the healthcare workplace. OSHA has listened to the voices of healthcare workers who have been demanding COVID-19 workplace protections for over a year.

OSHA can only issue an ETS where “grave danger” exists. By issuing this standard, OSHA is affirming what we have known – that healthcare workers have been in grave danger since the COVID pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020. It is estimated that approximately half a million healthcare workers in the U.S. have been infected with COVID, and thousands have died. In U.S. history no other occupational exposure has caused more illness and death in such a limited time in a single industry. The issuance of an ETS is an important step towards protecting our healthcare heroes.

The ETS contains important protections for healthcare workers including:

  • The requirement that healthcare employers conduct a workplace COVID hazard assessment, address the hazards identified in the assessment, and develop and implement a written COVID-19 plan. All of this must be conducted with the input and involvement of non-managerial employees and their representatives.
  • The employer must implement a patient and visitor screening and management system to limit the risk of exposure.
  • Respirators (N95s, elastomerics, PAPRs, etc.) must be provided when a worker comes in close contact with a COVID-positive patient or a patient-under-investigation (PUI).
  • The employer must create a log of all employees who have contracted COVID-19, whether it was due to workplace exposure or not.
  • Notification of exposure within 24 hours.

Unfortunately, there are other parts of the standard that fall short:

  • The ETS does not adequately recognize airborne and asymptomatic transmission, and it assumes there is absolutely no risk for vaccinated persons.
  • Instead of requiring employers to diversify its respiratory stockpile by adding reusable elastomeric respirators and PAPRs, the ETS continues to allow the CDC’s unhygienic and dangerous practice of N95 reuse.
  • The ETS incorporates by reference the weak Trump-era CDC guidance that has hampered implementation of effective infection control measures. In part, it bases PPE on length of exposure (the discredited “15-minute rule”), creating an opening for employers to refuse PPE to workers who are still at great risk of exposure.
  • The ETS exempts non-hospital ambulatory care settings where non-employees are screened for COVID before entering, and people with confirmed or suspected COVID are not permitted to enter. Because COVID-19 is frequently spread by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals, screening questions often fail to identify those who may be infectious.
  • The ETS does not clearly define a number of issues, using terms such as “appropriate” for the level of outdoor air required for ventilation and “well-defined portion of a workplace.” Where terminology is ambiguous, there is likely to be conflicting interpretation of what OSHA means and actions the employer is required to take.
  • Input from the American Hospital Association and other employer organizations is plain to see in the ETS. From the outset they opposed any ETS whatsoever. Then, when it became clear one would be issued, mobilized to lessen its effectiveness.

To that end, NYSNA calls for a permanent OSHA standard on airborne transmission of infectious agents — one that recognizes current science and puts worker safety ahead of employer pushback. NYSNA also strongly urges OSHA to implement an effective COVID-19 ETS for all workers, particularly other essential workers, who have disproportionately felt the deadly impact of the virus and continue to be at risk for COVID infection every day. If we are to honor and protect the true heroes of this pandemic, we must protect them now and in the future.

The full Emergency Temporary Standard, published in the Federal Register on June 21, can be found here.

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The New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) represents more than 42,000 members in New York State. We are New York’s largest union and professional association for registered nurses. For more information, visit nysna.org.

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