The Precautionary Principle is Paramount

More than two years after the West African Ebola outbreak panicked the globe, Ebola news made headlines again when researchers found evidence suggesting that the deadly virus lingers in people’s lungs.

“Some people were infected without being in direct contact with patients,” Ali Zumla, a University College London researcher, told a reporter. “This study suggests that Ebola may be transmitted by breathing - something which up to now we didn’t think was possible.”

This latest finding is another reminder that we still don’t fully understand the methods of transmission of Ebola and other emerging diseases.

That’s why, in situations like these, the registered nurse members of National Nurses United insist on following the precautionary principle to protect our patients, ourselves, and the public. It’s an important component of our Nurses’ Health and Safety Campaign.

The precautionary principle to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action that may or may not be a risk.

In other words, when you don’t know what you’re dealing with, go above and beyond to protect the safety of those involved. Do as much as you can, not the least you can get away with. 

Applying this principle to Ebola, NNU nurses demanded from all workplaces the highest standards of personal protective equipment, training, and hands-on additional staffing to protect public health and safety.

Sadly, the results of our survey at the height of the outbreak showed that most American hospitals refused to follow the precautionary principle. As a result, our RN colleagues Nina Pham and Amber Vinson paid a high price for their willingness to care for those suffering from Ebola. They now live with the knowledge that the long-term effects of the disease are still unclear. All this could have been prevented if their employer had followed the precautionary principle and provided them with effective personal protective equipment.

In response to inaction by hospitals, we took the lead, alerting the American public and lawmakers of the dangers posed to the nation’s registered nurses, healthcare workers, and the public.  We succeeded in winning passage in California of the nation’s first mandated standards for protecting the health and safety of caregivers treating patients with Ebola and infectious diseases – and continue to lobby on a national level for similar rules.

We live in a shrinking, global world. Nurses know that Ebola will not be the last contagious disease challenge the world faces.

Nurses, as always, will be on the front lines of the next epidemic. That is our social contract with the public. Our employers’ social contract with us should be to furnish us with the highest standards of protection. But we know they will not do so without pressure from an organized RN workforce.

Saving lives should not be a life-threatening endeavor. Join the nursing health and safety movement today!

Bonnie Castillo, RN, is National Director of Health and Safety and the Registered Nurse Response Network for National Nurses United.  She also serves as NNU’s Associate Executive Director.