Feature

Health care workers implore OSHA for more oversight on COVID-19 safety


 

Last spring, when Cliff Willmeng, RN, was working at United Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, he’d take off his personal protective equipment (PPE) in the same hallway where children were transported from ambulances to the neighboring Children’s Hospital emergency department. Stretchers would roll across red tape on the floor that designated the area as a “hot zone.” The door from a break room was about 10 feet away.

Willmeng has been a union activist all his life, but he’d never filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Concerned about the inadequate space for doffing PPE and other situations in which the spread of SARS-CoV-2 seemed possible, Willmeng and other colleagues filed multiple OSHA complaints with the Minnesota Department of Labor in March and April. Willmeng was also worried about bringing SARS-CoV-2 on his scrubs home to his wife and kids, and he started wearing hospital-supplied scrubs that were meant for doctors and that were washed on site, which was against hospital policy. The hospital fired Willmeng on May 8, citing code of conduct and respectful workplace violations arising from the uniform dispute.

In August, the state agency issued Willmeng’s hospital a $2,100 fine for failure to comply with guidance regarding “respiratory protection” in response to worker complaints over the fact that they were instructed to restaple elastic bands on N95 masks early in the pandemic. In a statement, United Hospital said it contested the citation, and it is in discussions with Minnesota OSHA. “We have and continue to instruct employees not to alter N95 respirators or reuse damaged or soiled N95 respirators,” such as when the straps are broken, the statement says.

Minnesota OSHA has received three times as many emails and phone calls from workers and employers requesting information and assistance during the pandemic, compared with last year, said spokesperson James Honerman. “If Minnesota OSHA is made aware of a workplace safety or health issue, it assesses the situation and determines how best to respond, including conducting a workplace investigation.”

But Willmeng, who has been out of work since he was fired, says that without a receipt or confirmation from OSHA, he has no way of knowing whether there has been any follow-up regarding his complaints. Minnesota OSHA said workers should receive a letter once a case is resolved.

Like Willmeng’s case, none of the more than 10,000 COVID-related complaints the federal OSHA office has received from across the country have resulted in meaningful sanctions. Unions have picketed local OSHA offices and publicized complaints on behalf of their members to protest what they see as a lack of oversight. Legislators have called on US Department of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to step up enforcement.

For many health care workers, complaining to OSHA is a last resort after failing to get satisfactory responses from supervisors and appealing to unions for help. But with such minimal oversight from OSHA, some union leaders and legislators say it’s actually more dangerous than not having workplace safety enforcement at all. Lack of directives from the Trump administration has left the agency without the teeth it has cut under previous administrations, and recent changes to the agency’s rules raise questions about whether companies are ever required to report workers’ hospitalizations due to COVID-19.

“It’s so ineffective that it’s more dangerous to workers,” said Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7, which represents 22,000 health care and other workers in Colorado and Wyoming. “Employers only do what they’re forced to do.” Instead of deterring a multi-billion-dollar company, she said, such low fines signal that a company doesn’t need to worry about COVID-related safety.

“OSHA is doing a lamentably poor job protecting workers during the pandemic,” said James Brudney, JD, a professor at Fordham Law School, in New York, and former chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor. “I’m not alone in saying that the agency has performed so badly.”

Former government officials writing in JAMA were similarly critical: “In the face of the greatest worker health crisis in recent history, OSHA, the lead government agency responsible for worker health and safety, has not fulfilled its responsibilities.”

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