Lifesaving Emergency Standard Issued by OSHA to Protect Health Care Workers in Response to Lawsuit by United Nurses and Other Unions

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Contact: Jeff Rogers | | (909) 263-7230

Lifesaving Emergency Standard Issued by OSHA to Protect Health Care Workers in Response to Lawsuit by United Nurses and Other Unions

LOS ANGELES – OSHA issued an emergency temporary standard today that requires employers to help protect health care workers in settings where suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients are treated. The new standard comes in part as a response to a lawsuit filed last year by UNAC/UHCP and other unions, represented by Democracy Forward, against the Trump administration and will unquestionably save the lives of health care heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic, which still rages worldwide, with new, more infectious and deadly variants continually emerging. More than 3,600 health care workers died from COVID-19 in the United States alone as of May 5, 2021, with the real number likely much higher—and with nurses dying in the highest numbers of any health care profession at 32%. As of April 2021, 300 California health care professionals died from COVID.

“Thousands of nurses and other health care workers felled by the pandemic so far would still be with us, caring for patients and anchoring their families, if this standard had been in place when COVID-19 hit,” said UNAC/UHCP President Denise Duncan, RN. “This is a huge victory for the health care workers whose lives will be saved, but we can never forget the lives lost, risks taken, and sacrifices made during the first fifteen months of this pandemic. This standard will be a living memorial to those losses and sacrifices.”

Tragically, the Trump administration blocked the issuance of a similar protective rule in 2017 after the Obama administration’s OSHA spent six years developing it, reaching out to stakeholders, holding hearings, and taking public comments. This is the first emergency temporary standard protecting health care providers issued by OSHA in 38 years.

Jim Frederick, OSHA’s acting administrator, has estimated that at least 10.3 million people work in the hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities required to comply with the new ETS rules. Emergency responders and home health care workers will also be covered.

Even as California and the United States begin to open up and many Americans feel a sense of relief, the worldwide death toll from COVID in 2021 today surpassed—after only six months—the COVID death toll for all of 2020, according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal.

“Many of us are aching to return to some feeling of normalcy after so much loss and disruption,” said Duncan, “but nurses and health care workers are still on the frontlines bearing the brunt of every new case and every new variant, just as we have from the beginning.”

One of the most important aspects of the ETS is that it requires employers to work with employee representatives and unions to create an implementation plan, with the plan susceptible to OSHA review.

“The public overwhelmingly understands that nurses and other health care workers are heroes, risking our lives to protect our patients,” said Duncan. “What’s not so well understood is the role unions play in protecting the nurses and caregivers who protect patients. This ETS is a prime example. UNAC/UHCP joined together with the Washington State Nurses Association, AFSCME, and AFT, to sue for this standard—which, by protecting frontline caregivers, protects patients. After the trauma and loss of fifteen months of pandemic, we’re hearing that 30% of health care workers are considering leaving the profession. Steps like this can help turn that around, by reassuring our caregivers that we as a society are caring for them in return.”

The new ETS mandates that covered employers ensure ventilation systems work properly and provide employees with face masks, respirators, and other PPE when exposed to people even suspected to have COVID—including not just nurses and direct caregivers but also janitors and other workers potentially exposed. It requires employers to provide necessary new PPE every time existing PPE becomes soiled, at a minimum of one time per day. It also allows employees to provide their own masks, respirators, or face shields at their own expense; and provides for paid time off for any COVID illness up to fourteen days, as well as PTO for health care workers to get vaccinated and recover from any sides effects of the vaccine.

Employers must initiate compliance within fourteen days and reach full compliance no later than thirty days. The standard will mandate stockpiles of PPE to meet the requirements. While the standard is temporary for now, a permanent rule can be considered within six months to replace the temporary standard. The bar for issuance of an ETS is high, requiring OSHA to determine that workers are in grave danger from toxic substances at work and that the ETS is necessary for their protection.


United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) represents more than 32,000 registered nurses and other health care professionals in California and Hawaii, including optometrists; pharmacists; physical, occupational, and speech therapists; case managers; nurse midwives; social workers; clinical lab scientists; physician assistants and nurse practitioners. UNAC/UHCP is affiliated with the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO.