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Coronavirus pandemic: Nurses union calls on OSHA to issue emergency standard

Photo: LumiNola/iStockphoto

Silver Spring, MD — In response to the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the nation’s largest union and professional association of direct care registered nurses is petitioning OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect frontline workers, patients and the public from the potentially deadly respiratory illness.

COVID-19 reportedly is linked to a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan, China, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of the illness include fever, cough and shortness of breath. As of March 10, 647 people in 35 states and the District of Columbia had contracted the virus and 25 had died, the agency states.

In a March 4 letter sent to Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia and acting OSHA administrator Loren Sweatt, National Nurses United, which represents more than 150,000 registered nurses nationwide, urges “immediate action to ensure nurses and all health care workers are protected during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

The agency notes on its infectious diseases webpage that several standards and directives – including the Bloodborne Pathogens (1910.1030), Personal Protective Equipment (1910.132) and Respiratory Protection (1910.134) standards – “are directly applicable to protecting workers against transmission of infectious agents.”

NNU argues, however, that OSHA guidance for health care workers also should be available when a new virus, such as the new coronavirus, emerges globally.

“Nurses are confident that we can contain this disease and prevent unnecessary deaths and suffering,” Cathy Kennedy, vice president of NNU’s executive council, said in a March 4 press release. “But our employers and the government need to provide us with the right guidelines, staffing, equipment and supplies in order for us to do this work safely. We, our patients and the public deserve nothing less.”


In addition to a temporary emergency standard from OSHA, NNU urges health care employers to:

  • Implement COVID-19 response plans and protocols.
  • Clearly communicate with all workers, especially when a case of the disease is suspected or confirmed.
  • Provide training and education on PPE and other protocols.
  • Provide necessary equipment and the highest level of protection for workers and patients confirmed to have the disease.
  • Plan for a surge of patients and provide safe staffing levels.
  • Investigate after a COVID-19 patient is identified to ensure any health care worker who may have been exposed is also identified and notified.

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