April 28, 2020

Workers’ Memorial Day: Coronavirus pandemic illustrates need for adequate workplace protections

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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NYSUT is marking this year’s national Workers’ Memorial Day with a call to action for more workplace protections in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, when health care professionals, teachers and School-Related Professionals have faced exposure, illness and death from serving in workplaces without adequate protections in place.

A federal bill now under consideration would require the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department, to issue Emergency Temporary Standards to establish legal obligation for all workplaces to implement infectious disease exposure control plans. OSHA currently has no enforceable standards to protect workers from airborne diseases, and earlier this month even excused workplaces from having to report COVID-19 cases.

“The time is now for OSHA to step up instead of step back,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “We need an Emergency Temporary Standard that establishes a legal obligation for all workplaces to implement infectious disease exposure control plans to keep workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need this standard now and we will need this standard when we reopen our schools and economy. Worker health is public health.”

“We’ve lost people to COVID-19 who were possibly exposed at work,” said Veronica Foley, NYSUT health and safety specialist.

“An emergency temporary standard would set a great precedent,” Foley said. “It would give us the needed opportunity to work with and hold schools, hospitals and other workplaces accountable for creating protections for staff as well as students, and the community.”

The proposed bill (H.R. 6559) would require the agency to establish a legal obligation for all workplaces to implement infectious disease exposure control plans to keep workers safe.

NYSUT has a memorial page chronicling and honoring the union members who have died due to the disease. They are being honored daily, and especially today, on Worker’s Memorial Day. In 2018, 5,250 people died on the job in the U.S, according to OSHA, with the majority of deaths coming from the construction industry. This year, COVID-19 has claimed nearly 55,000 lives as of the end of April, and many people were exposed at their jobs.

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Doctors, nurses and other health care professionals have been working without adequate personal protective equipment and a lack of best practices in terms of policies and procedures needed to help workplaces stymie the spread of infectious disease. Overall, NYSUT is advocating for more equipment, proper training in how to use it, and adequate COVID-19 testing. Employer recording, reporting and tracking of worker infections is essential.

“There needs to be ongoing labor-management discussions and oversight about the implementation of any plan or procedure with a goal of reducing infections and helping members,” Foley said. “If a custodian has to clean, what do they need? If a teacher has to work in the classroom, what do they need?”

NYSUT had donated thousands of face masks to health care professionals by raising money through its Disaster Relief Fund. Using 3D printers, educators K–12 and at the college and university level have made and donated face shields.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 16,000 workers in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19 as of the end of March. The CDC has issued various standards for communities and workplaces, but the guidance is not binding.

“An OSHA standard would be binding,” Foley said.“ OSHA was created with the sole purpose of protecting workers. All of their standards are enforceable and they give workers agency. The unions have a capacity to educate members about their rights under OSHA, and expanding those rights by creating additional and much-needed infectious disease standards would further protect them from this formidable hazard.”

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