Thursday, September 17, 2020

To Protect Public Health, U.S. Must Prioritize Worker Safety During COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an enormous worker safety crisis to those caring for patients and others providing public-facing services, according to a Viewpoint article published in JAMA. Today is World Patient Safety Day, and the article highlights the importance of ensuring the safety of health workers, today’s theme.

U.S. employers are required under law to provide their employees with safe workplaces, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is tasked with enforcing the law, wrote David Michaels, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, and Gregory Wagner, M.D., of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“While OSHA could be making an important contribution to reversing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and mitigate risk to workers, their families, and communities, the federal government has not fully utilized OSHA’s public safety authority in its efforts to reduce the risk of COVID-19,” the authors wrote.

As of September 16, more than 155,000 hospital and nursing home staff have been infected by COVID-19 at work, and nearly 700 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “As the epidemic has spread, many other workers, including emergency responders, corrections officers, transit workers, and workers in meat and poultry factories, farms, grocery stores, and warehouses, also have been infected by SARS-CoV-2,” Michaels and Wagner wrote.

“As businesses reopen, not only ‘essential’ workers but all workers need to be protected,” they continued. “Unprotected workers will inevitably bring the virus from work to their homes and communities, setting back efforts to decrease the spread of infection, reduce morbidity and mortality, and rebuild the economy.”

All workplaces must have clear COVID-19 prevention plans, Michaels and Wagner wrote, that include the following:

  • Workplaces should be designed to eliminate crowding and allow physical distancing.
  • Employees should be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Workplaces should have enhanced ventilation and adequate hand sanitation and hand-washing facilities.
  • Potentially contaminated surfaces should be disinfected.
  • Workers should be screened for COVID-19.
  • Adequate paid sick leave or unemployment compensation should be provided for those who cannot work due to COVID-19 concerns.

The authors urged the federal government to increase PPE production and OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) “that would require every employer to develop and implement an infection control plan,” they wrote. The federal government should also provide subsidies to businesses to meet the requirements of an ETS.

“The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic requires strong and immediate action, including by government agencies, unions, employers, and workers,” the authors concluded. “Failure to exert leadership and develop effective policy in this area, including involving and engaging all affected groups and constituencies in stopping workplace spread of the virus, has had and will likely continue to have serious repercussions, not just for workers, but for the health and economy of the nation.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Psychiatrists Respond to MH Needs of Patients, Frontline COVID-19 Workers.”

(Image: iStock/Halfpoint)


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