With rising coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, the AFL-CIO and major nurses unions on Wednesday petitioned a federal court to order the Biden administration to issue an official and permanent OSHA standard requiring employers to protect healthcare workers from Covid-19.
"We must treat the surge in new cases as the crisis that it is."
"We are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and healthcare workers are facing dangerous exposures to Covid-19 and need the strongest possible protections in their workplaces. We must treat the surge in new cases as the crisis that it is," said AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler in a statement.
"In the face of the Omicron variant, it is not the time to roll back protections, but to fully enforce and make them permanent," added Schuler, whose group is among the petitioners. "We have no choice but to turn to the courts to ensure that our healthcare workers are protected as they provide such critical care throughout this pandemic."
The other petitioners are the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), American Federation of Teachers, National Nurses United (NNU), New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), and Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals.
The labor groups asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to order the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to retain and enforce the healthcare emergency temporary standard (ETS) issued by the labor secretary in June 2021 until it is superseded by a permanent one.
The petitioners also requested that the court order the Department of Labor agency to issue that permanent standard "aimed at protecting the life and health of millions of nurses and other frontline healthcare workers throughout the United States in grave danger from the deadly Covid-19 pandemic" within 30 days.
OSHA announced on December 27 that it "intends to continue to work expeditiously to issue a final standard" but also said that because such a rule "cannot be completed in a timeframe approaching the one contemplated by the OSH Act," it was withdrawing portions of the healthcare ETS.
The agency added at the time:
With the rise of the Delta variant this fall, and now the spread of the Omicron variant this winter, OSHA believes the danger faced by healthcare workers continues to be of the highest concern and measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are still needed to protect them. Given these facts, and given OSHA's anticipated finalization of this rule, OSHA strongly encourages all healthcare employers to continue to implement the ETS's requirements in order to protect employees from a hazard that too often causes death or serious physical harm to employees.
NYSNA executive director Pat Kane, RN, said Wednesday that "with infections and hospitalizations on the rise, frontline hospital nurses and healthcare workers desperately need enforceable standards for personal protective equipment, exposure notification, ventilation systems, and other lifesaving measures."
"In failing to follow their own mandate to create a permanent standard, OSHA has put nurses, healthcare workers, and the public's health at risk of even greater harm," Kane warned. "The Department of Labor has left nurses and their patients in serious jeopardy."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a longtime advocate for workers, took to Twitter Wednesday morning to express solidarity with the healthcare personnel demanding urgent action from the Labor Department.
NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo, RN, noted that already, "we have seen far too many of our fellow nurses die during this pandemic."
"As of today, we have recorded the deaths of 476 nurse deaths from Covid," she said. "Going to work should not mean putting your life and the lives of your loved ones in danger."
As of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had documented 807,050 cases among U.S. healthcare personnel and at least 3,067 deaths.
NNU has recorded even higher figures for healthcare workers. The union reported 4,702 Covid-19 deaths and more than a million infections as of late December.
Given that the Omicron variant is highly transmissible and people nationwide traveled and visited family and friends for the holidays, experts anticipate that cases will continue to climb.
AFSCME president Lee Saunders highlighted Wednesday that "just this week, the U.S. hit a record single-day number of Covid-19 cases: over one million."
"To save lives and protect our frontline heroes, OSHA must not rescind the emergency temporary standard," Saunders said, "and instead promulgate a permanent healthcare standard to protect the lives and health of millions of nurses and other healthcare workers in grave danger from the deadly Covid-19 pandemic."