COVID-19 pandemic: Legislation would direct OSHA to issue emergency standard for health care facilities
Washington — In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, House Education and Labor Committee Chair Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and 20 other representatives are sponsoring a partisan bill that would require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard for health care facilities to implement comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plans.
The COVID-19 Health Care Worker Protection Act of 2020 (H.R. 6139) would direct OSHA to publish the temporary standard within 30 days.
“Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues guidance to protect health care workers, the guidance is not binding and OSHA currently has no enforceable standard to protect workers from airborne infectious diseases,” a March 10 press release from Scott’s office states, “leaving the nation’s health care workers at an elevated risk of exposure to the coronavirus at a time when they are needed most.”
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, reporting that the number of cases worldwide had surpassed 118,000 and the death toll had reached nearly 4,300. The disease is reportedly linked to a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan, China, according to CDC. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. In the United States, as of March 11, 938 people in 38 states and the District of Columbia had been diagnosed with the illness and 29 had died, the agency states.
On March 5, Scott and Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), chair of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia and acting OSHA administrator Loren Sweatt. “If health care workers are quarantined in large numbers, or get ill or die, or fear coming to work due to the risks, it’s not just a personal or workplace problem, it’s a national public health disaster,” the letter states. “OSHA is the only agency in the federal government authorized to enforce safe working conditions for the nation’s workers – including those in health care facilities.
“As we enter into what is likely to be the greatest infectious disease crisis this country has faced in over a century, it is in the national interest that OSHA be on the forefront of protecting workers essential to the country’s health care system.”
National Nurses United – the nation’s largest union and professional association of direct care registered nurses – petitioned OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard, in a March 4 letter sent to Scalia and Sweatt.
OSHA published employer guidance on the coronavirus March 9 in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency also published its COVID-19 webpage in January, not long after the first documented case in the United States.