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AFSCME sues to protect health workers from COVID-19, flu, Ebola

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By AFSCME Staff ·

SAN FRANCISCO – AFSCME and three other unions are taking the Trump administration to court to protect health care workers from getting infected on the job by COVID-19 and other dangerous diseases like the flu and Ebola.

AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA), and the United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) filed a petition on Oct. 29 with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco against Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The petition says the Trump administration unlawfully delayed rulemaking on an occupational standard to protect health care workers from infectious diseases transmitted by contact, droplets or air.

In 2017, the Trump administration tabled work on an infectious diseases standard and has refused to resume work on it despite the COVID-19 pandemic and pleas from health care professionals. The unions say the administration’s delay violates the Administrative Procedure Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Represented by Democracy Forward, the unions are seeking a court order forcing OSHA to advance rulemaking on an infectious diseases standard, which would require hospitals, clinics, school nurse offices, drug treatment programs and similar workplaces to protect workers from getting exposed to diseases transmitted by contact, droplets or air.

“Every day, public service workers in health care and related settings go above and beyond the call of duty, putting themselves and their families in harm’s way to keep their communities safe, healthy and strong,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “For their commitment to this work, stepping up during a pandemic, and battling our most infectious and deadly diseases, they and their patients deserve to know that there are science-based protocols and workplace protections in place that keep them as safe as possible on the job.”

Saunders added that just thanking nurses, behavioral health staff, EMS workers, corrections officers, and other front-line heroes is not enough. “We need action to ensure their health and safety, so that they can ensure ours,” he said.

While OSHA’s bloodborne pathogens standard requires employers to protect health care workers from diseases transmitted by blood, like hepatitis and HIV, there is no legally enforceable federal standard that requires employers to protect workers from diseases like COVID-19 that are spread by contact, droplets or air.

The lack of such a standard puts millions of health care professionals at risk – including more than 350,000 nurses and other personnel represented by AFSCME. Nationwide, more than 190,000 health care professionals have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 750 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even before the pandemic, there were 1.7 million health care-associated infections each year – from viruses like influenza and superbugs like MRSA – that pose a risk to health care workers.

Before the Trump administration put the infectious diseases standard on the backburner, OSHA was on track to issue it. The agency had spent nearly a decade considering the matter after AFT, AFSCME, and other labor unions petitioned for the standard in May 2009.

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