Groups Eye OSHA for New Infectious Disease Requirements

The global outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014 brought unprecedented attention to the workplace hazards that healthcare employees face. In a year when TIME Magazine named “Ebola Fighters” as their Person of the Year, the exposure of healthcare workers to on-the-job dangers received a level of public awareness not seen in years. There was, of course, a compelling reason for this. As of Dec. 14 of this year, 649 healthcare workers were known to have contracted Ebola in the course of treating infected patients, and 365 had passed away according to the World Health Organization.

With concern for America’s healthcare workers correspondingly elevated, some have called for regulatory bodies such as OSHA to do more to ensure that employees are protected from Ebola and similar hazards.

In October, National Nurses United publicly asked for increased mandated safety precautions for workers tending to Ebola patients and launched an online petition. Other entities, like the American Industrial Hygiene Association, sent letters to OSHA asking for new PPE requirements for Ebola workers. And groups like Doctors Without Borders have instituted their own safety precautions that far surpass current safety requirements.

Perhaps the most interesting development was last month’s move by Cal-OSHA to mandate new PPE — including full-body protective gear and air-purifying respirators with full cowls or hoods — for all California workers who may be exposed to Ebola, including support and cleaning staff. Adoption of the new regulation followed a two-day strike by over 18,000 California nurses to bring attention to the issue.

Impact on Federal OSHA

Many have speculated that these and similar actions might lead OSHA to increase PPE requirements nationally for workers who may come into contact with infectious diseases like Ebola.

Most of OSHA’s current pathogen requirements focus on bloodborne diseases, and were passed 30 years ago in response to concerns regarding the transmission of HIV. In June of this year — when the Ebola outbreak was confined to Africa and involved less than 500 fatalities — OSHA formally announced that it was considering the need for a new standard that would help employers better protect against pathogens. However, this new standard has still not been issued.

OSHA’s current requirements around infectious disease do offer multiple protections for frontline healthcare workers, including those who might come into contact with Ebola. Drawing on its Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, OSHA requires that workers who may be exposed to bioaerosols containing the Ebola virus follow OSHA’s Respiratory Protections standard.  OSHA also requires employers to follow its PPE requirements for contact-transmissible diseases, and advises employers to consult the CDC recommendations for additional guidance around Ebola safety. However, these requirements still fall short of the specific PPE rules passed last month by Cal-OSHA.

As 2014 draws to a close, it’s clear that many will be looking to see if OSHA moves on this issue in the new year.

For more information on OSHA’s current standards for worker exposure to the Ebola virus, you can visit their Ebola Web page here.