By John Welsh, RN, MNA Health and Safety Committee member
This summer, the Biden Administration issued new workplace safety rules regarding COVID-19 that we believe give nurses important rights to protect themselves as the pandemic continues.
While the COVID-19 vaccine and increased supply of Personal Protective Equipment have dramatically improved nurse safety compared to last year, COVID-19 remains dangerous, and healthcare workers remain vulnerable. These new rules are essential to hold employers accountable for worker safety.
Technically, what the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration did was determine that employee exposure to COVID-19 presents a grave danger to workers in healthcare settings and issued Emergency Temporary Standards to address the issue. The document covers 900 pages. New requirements include:
- All healthcare employers must have written infection control safety and implementation plans developed in consultation with non-management employees and their representatives.
- Implementing lifesaving respiratory protection against aerosol transmission of the virus for nurses and other frontline healthcare workers caring for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients.
- Mandating wearing masks, screenings, physical distancing, and barriers in the workplace. However, fully vaccinated healthcare workers don’t have to wear masks or adhere to distancing requirements if they are in “well-defined areas where all employees are fully vaccinated.”
- Employers are to send home any employee who tests positive for COVID-19, is suspected of being infected or is symptomatic for defined periods of time. When that happens, healthcare employers with more than ten people on staff must continue paying workers who can’t operate remotely their normal salary up to $1,400 a week for the first two weeks they are absent. However, the exact amount may vary if workers are sick for a longer period.
Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) and Nurses National United (NNU) leaders have welcomed these new standards. As of June, NNU reports that more than 400 RNs have died of COVID-19. In Minnesota, there have been 600,000 cases of COVID-19. More than seven percent of them were healthcare workers. This is the first time OSHA has used emergency temporary standards in nearly 40 years, and they did so despite opposition from hospitals. Union leaders believe these standards will become an important benchmark for protecting healthcare workers from infectious disease.
“This is a major victory for those who have worked so hard to achieve this recognition of the terrible toll on nurses and other healthcare workers, against the malfeasance and resistance of employers and many elected officials,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN in an announcement of the new standards.
A year ago, we nurses were forced to re-use N-95 masks during multiple shifts. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. But one lesson from this pandemic is that we cannot trust our employers to put employee or patient safety over budget concerns. These new OSHA rules give nurses increased powers to challenge employers regarding unsafe practices. If you think your employer is not taking the necessary steps to protect you from COVID-19, contact your MNA leaders and consider filing a complaint through OSHA.
To file an OSHA complaint in Wisconsin or North Dakota, call 1-800-321-6742 or visit https://www.osha.gov/pls/osha7/eComplaintForm.html
John Welsh, RN, is a nurse at Unity Hospital in Fridley and an MNA Health and Safety Committee member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.