With more than 5,000 confirmed and probable cases of the H1NI (swine flu) virus in the United States—including 82 infections in health care workers—as well as six deaths and reports that the virus is continuing to spread, the AFL-CIO and several unions today urged the federal government to act swiftly to protect workers.
In a letter to Jordan Barab, acting director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario writes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suspects the number of confirmed cases understates the actual level of infection and that the H1N1 virus is spreading. Says Seminario’s letter:
As OSHA and CDC have recognized, health care workers, emergency responders and other workers who come into close contact with patients infected with the novel H1N1 virus are at increased risk of exposure and infection and require protection.
When the virus was discovered to have spread to the United States earlier this spring, the CDC and OSHA recommended that employers follow recently issued guidelines for protecting workers from pandemic flu, and CDC issued new interim guidelines to protect health care workers from the H1N1 infection. But as Seminario writes:
Unfortunately, there is documented evidence that in a number of states and facilities, these guidelines are not being followed.
In April, a report by the AFL-CIO and several unions revealed that health care workers are at risk because many of the nation’s health care facilities are not prepared to deal with a pandemic.
While there is currently no comprehensive OSHA standard covering airborne infectious diseases such as the H1N1 virus, OSHA has the authority to enforce recommended measures under the general duty requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Says Seminario:
We request that OSHA immediately issue a hazard alert and/or compliance directive that makes clear that exposure to the novel H1N1 virus in healthcare settings and emergency response activities poses a recognized hazard to workers and requires protective measures.
Those measures should incorporate the OSHA respiratory protection standard and its personal proactive equipment standard, along with making clear the CDC and OSHA guidelines will be enforced under the agency’s general duty clause that requires employers to provide a safe workplace.
Taking these steps will make clear to healthcare employers their obligations to protect workers, and will reaffirm to healthcare workers that the government is taking the necessary steps to ensure that they are protected.
AFT, AFSCME. Communications Workers of America (CWA), Fire Fighters (IAFF), UAW, Laborers (LIUNA), SEIU and the Steelworkers (USW) signed onto the letter.
Don’t forget to check out the AFL-CIO’s pandemic flu site, which includes vital resources for health care workers, firefighters, educators and more. Just added to the site are five updated fact sheets:
* Basic Facts About Pandemic Flu and the H1N1 (Swine) Flu
* Protecting Workers During Pandemic Flu
* Protecting Health Care Workers During Pandemic Flu
* Respirators: One Way to Protect Workers Against Pandemic Flu
* What the Union Can Do: Preparing the Workplace for Pandemic Flu