Citing new Omicron variant, nurses say permanent OSHA Covid-19 standard for health care workers badly needed
Widespread transmission will continue to result in evolution and spread of new variants of concern, such as Omicron, making a permanent standard even more important
National Nurses United (NNU) today urges the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt a permanent OSHA standard on Covid-19 in health care workplaces, building on the emergency temporary standard (ETS) adopted in June 2021 and set to expire Dec. 21, 2021.
“The pandemic is far from over,” said NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN. “Unfettered, widespread transmission has resulted in and will continue to result in the evolution and spread of new variants of concern, such as Omicron. Nurses are urging OSHA not to let the hard-won Covid-19 protections in the ETS end—especially as we learn more about the latest variant.”
“The Covid-19 health care ETS has been an important step forward in ensuring safe working conditions for frontline health care workers by mandating optimal PPE and other protections, but it has also been a stopgap,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “We urge OSHA to make our protections permanent with no lapse in the enforcement of the temporary standard before the permanent standard is issued.”
The Covid-19 health care ETS has meant mandatory requirements for health care employers on infection control protections, with penalties for those who violate those requirements. Registered nurses noted that this has been the first OSHA emergency temporary standard since 1983, and it was promulgated thanks to unrelenting union nurse advocacy over the extensive opposition of the hospital industry and other corporate interests. Letting it expire without adopting a permanent standard would mean more transmission of the virus, more hospitalizations, and more deaths from Covid-19.
“Nurses and other health care workers have fought on the front lines of this deadly pandemic for two years,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “We haven’t forgotten that in the beginning, many of our employers told us to wear the same N95 respirator for a month—with no repercussions. It was a major step forward when OSHA issued the Covid-19 health care ETS in June, and it is imperative that OSHA maintain these lifesaving protections by issuing a permanent Covid-19 standard to ensure nurses and other health care workers can protect our patients.”
Nurses say the adoption of a permanent OSHA standard on Covid-19 in health care workplaces should be built on current ETS requirements, the precautionary principle, and updated scientific knowledge of the virus. Such a standard should include:
- All health care employers must have written infection control safety and implementation plans, developed in consultation with nonmanagement employees and their representatives.
- All nurses and other frontline health care workers exposed to Covid-19 must be provided optimal personal protective equipment against aerosol transmission of the virus, including respiratory protection, eye protection, protective clothing, and gloves.
- Protective requirements on notification of health care employees exposed to Covid-19 in the workplace, and provision of pay and benefits for those who must take time off as a result of exposure or infection.
- Mandates on screening and testing of patients and visitors, isolation and dedicated Covid-19 units, mask wearing, physical distancing, and ventilation in the workplace.
“If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t let our guard down too soon,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “We must stay vigilant. Our patients are still dying, cases remain high in many areas of the country, and nurses and other frontline workers remain at risk. To save as many lives as possible and to keep our communities safe, we are calling for OSHA’s emergency temporary standard to be made permanent so that nurses and other health care workers remain protected.”
In addition to acting immediately to protect nurses and other health care workers from the grave danger posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, NNU encourages OSHA to work expediently to issue a separate, broader standard to prepare for future pandemics and to protect all workers from workplace exposure to aerosol transmissible diseases.
As of this week, 476 RNs have died of Covid-19, among 4,632 health care worker deaths overall, according to NNU tracking data. Since the data has not been collected in many places, a full accounting may never be known. More than 1 million health care workers have been infected.
National Nurses United is the nation's largest and fastest-growing union and professional association of registered nurses, with more than 175,000 members nationwide.