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Fixing Workplaces Crucial to Controlling COVID-19

Thursday, November 19, 2020
Press Contacts: 

Roger Kerson, roger@nationalcosh.org, 734.645.0535;

James Boyle, james@abpartners.com

Fixing Workplaces Crucial to Controlling COVID-19

New Evidence Links Worker Safety Complaints
to COVID-19 Deaths in the Same County;
“Urgent Proposal” Offers Blueprint for Biden-Harris Administration
to Slow the Spread of Deadly Virus

BOSTON – Better protections for U.S workers, experts and advocates said today, are essential to controlling the spread of COVID-19.  Tens of millions of workers are still reporting to work in person every day, even as more shutdowns are implemented in the face of the rapidly spreading virus.

“To control COVID-19, we must make our workplaces safer,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). “When employers fail to protect workers, and the government fails to enforce safety standards, workers are at a high risk of getting sick, leading to greater spread of the disease in our communities.”

“Front-line workers are being treated – without their consent – like canaries in a coal mine,” said Martinez.  “That has to change.”  The pandemic, she noted, has had a disparate income on Black, Brown and indigenous communities, who are suffering higher rates of infection, illness and death.

“We’re facing an impossible situation,” said Sheryl Mount, RN, who is president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) Local 5015 at Virtua Memorial Health in Mount Holly, New Jersey. “Just last week, our employer sent out notification that sick nurses have to keep working until they begin to exhibit symptoms. That’s dangerous for us – and for our patients.”  Mount contracted COVID-19 while caring for her patients this spring and has since recovered.

Speaking at a media briefing hosted by National COSH, Prof. Nancy Krieger of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) described new research which shows a direct link between worker complaints to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and deaths from COVID-19.

“What the data tells us is that worker complaints are a leading indicator of real risks,” said Prof. Krieger. “There’s a strong link between workplace complaints and COVID-19 deaths– sixteen days later – in the same counties where those complaints originate.”  The findings by Dr. Krieger and her colleagues were recently published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.

“We have a great deal more to learn about this disease,” said Prof. Krieger. “But it’s clear we need to take worker concerns very seriously, because they are pointing to problems that put lives at risk.”  As of November 18, federal OSHA reported receiving 10,563 COVID-19 related complaints, but has opened inspections in only 247 cases, just 2.3 percent of the total.

The incoming Biden-Harris administration, experts and advocates say, has an opportunity to turn the page with science-based workplace protections – and without them, slowing the overall spread of the virus will be much more difficult.

“The first order of business,” said Dr. Gregory Wagner, “should be an emergency temporary standard, requiring all employers to put a plan in place to limit the spread of infectious disease. It has to be mandatory, and it has to protect whistleblowers who report safety problems, so no one has to worry about retaliation.”

Dr. Wagner, a former senior advisor to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and currently adjunct professor at HSPH, is co-author of “An Urgent Proposal to Protect American Workers,” a comprehensive blueprint for making workplaces safer.

“OSHA has the legal authority to issue an emergency standard, and the relevant scientific research has already been completed,” said Dr. Wagner. “There’s no reason to delay a life-saving regulation when workers are getting sick and dying while they keep the rest of us fed, provide us with medical care, and deliver other essential products and services. The regulation would be a good start to a comprehensive, coordinated government effort for protecting workers who cannot work from home.”

An “Urgent Proposal” also recommends increased production of personal protective equipment (PPE), expedited workplace case reporting, more and more forceful OSHA inspections, support for workplace testing, and other measures.

National COSH’s “Safe and Just Return to Work” report calls for a worker-centered approach to disease prevention, including worker involvement in developing plans to control workplace infections; worker representation on public boards and task forces related to COVID-19; job protection, just compensation and paid sick leave; and measures to ensure equity, inclusion and a path to end health and economic disparities.

“It’s good news that a vaccine against COVID-19 may be available soon,” said Martinez. “But a vaccine alone won’t defeat this pandemic. This vast public health crisis requires a massive public response – which absolutely must include better protections for millions of front-line workers.”

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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit NationalCOSH.org. Follow us at National COSH on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.