Labor Department officials on Thursday announced a temporary emergency standard to protect health care workers, saying they face “grave danger” in the workplace from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The new standard would require employers to remove workers who have COVID-19 from the workplace, notify workers of COVID-19 exposure at work and strengthen requirements for employers to report worker deaths or hospitalizations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“These are the workers who continue to go into work day in and day out to take care of us, to save our lives,” said Jim Frederick, acting assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health. “And we must make sure we do everything in our power to return the favor to protect them.”
The new rules are set to take effect immediately after publication in the Federal Register and are expected to affect about 10.3 million health care workers nationwide.
The government’s statement of reasons for the new rules cites the work of KHN and The Guardian in tallying more than 3,600 health care worker COVID-19 deaths through April 8. Journalists documented far more deaths than the limited count by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which through May tallied 1,611 deaths on case-reporting forms that were often incomplete.
The Lost on the Frontline project documented early calls for better respiratory protection for health care workers than loose-fitting face masks, noted serious complaints to OSHA from hospital workers that went unaddressed and revealed repeated employer failures to report dozens of worker deaths. It also found that health care employers were often remiss in notifying workers about exposure to the coronavirus on the job.
The new standard would address some of those problems.
The rules require workers to wear N95 or elastomeric respirators when in contact with people with either suspected or confirmed COVID-19. They strengthen employer record-keeping requirements, saying employers must document all worker COVID-19 cases (regardless of whether they were deemed work-related) and report work-related deaths even if they occur more than 30 days after exposure.
Until now, employers were required to report a hospitalization only if it came within 24 hours of a workplace exposure. Now all work-related COVID-19 hospitalizations must be reported. The rules also mandate notification about exposure to a sick colleague, patient or customer if the worker was not wearing a respirator.
There is a lot to like about the new rule ― except for the timing, according to Barbara Rosen, vice president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union in New Jersey.