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Study spotlights struggles of environmental health service workers in health care

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Photo: gorodenkoff/iStockphoto

Aurora, CO — “Lack of recognition as frontline workers” adds emotional strain to the physical demands, staffing obstacles and COVID-19 concerns of workers who clean and sanitize health care facilities and equipment, results of a recent University of Colorado study suggest.

Citing previous studies, researchers from CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus note that environmental health service workers, or EVS, frequently are understaffed and under-recognized, and sometimes go without paid sick leave and health insurance. From November 2020 to January 2021, the researchers interviewed 16 EVS workers from UCHealth, focusing on job strain and support.

Their findings revealed four themes: need for ongoing training/education, emotional challenges of patient care, resource/staffing barriers and lack of recognition as frontline responders.

During an interview with Safety+Health, Sarah Jordan, lead study author and research services senior professional at Anschutz, said it is “critical” for employers “to invest in safety and support for workers, both right now and for the long term.”

Jordan continued: “For example, participants in our study underscored the need for – and risks of not having – training and education available in languages other than English. Many EVS described translating critical, fast-changing hospital protocols to each other – sometimes not even in the same alternate language, and frequently on the fly – and had concerns about safety implications from having to ‘plug the gaps’ where formal communication was not available in their primary languages.”

Jordan and her colleagues suggest employers can help improve the situation for workers by:

  • Implementing practices such as translation and native language education.
  • Fielding concerns directly from workers to inform ongoing training and professional development.
  • Developing inclusive communication processes.
  • Providing adequate personal protective equipment.
  • Providing improved benefits and pay.

“We asked participants at the end of our interviews about one thing they wanted the world to know,” Jordan said, “and the biggest thing they described outside of policy and systems change were ‘people solutions’ – acknowledge us, see us, understand us. In addition to the systemic changes that would improve conditions for EVS workers like pay and benefits, everyone has the power to practice regular, intentional recognition of under-recognized workers through simple expressions of gratitude in passing or acts of service to support them.

“We hope that, more than anything, amplifying these stories helps keep these critical workers at the forefront of people’s minds, well beyond the length of the pandemic and well into a future where they are no longer ‘forgotten frontline workers.’”

The study was published online Feb. 15 in the Journal of Hospital Medicine.

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