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Ebola Outbreak Shows Need for Stronger Protection for Health Care Workers

Reports that a second Dallas hospital worker has been infected with the Ebola virus show the need for stronger and more comprehensive on-the-job protections for health care workers.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Nina Pham, Amber Vinson and their families,” said National COSH executive director Mary Vogel. “We’re also thinking of all the health care workers across America who are exposed, every day, to serious risks to their own health and safety.”

“The Ebola virus can be fatal – and so can many other hazards faced by health care workers,” said Vogel. To ensure a safe working environment, “health care employers must implement comprehensive workplace health and safety programs.”

That means workers receive adequate training, access to the right protective equipment – and most important, a voice in developing workplace standards so hazards can be prevented before workers are harmed. Workers must also be protected from retaliation, Vogel said, when reporting hazardous conditions and violations of safety standards.

The New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), an affiliate of National COSH, has a fact sheet available for any workers at risk of exposure to the Ebola virus, and a specific fact sheet for aircraft cabin cleaners and cargo handlers.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the health care and social assistance industry reported more than 653,900 on-the-job injuries and illnesses in 2010, the highest for any private sector industry in the United States. By comparison, workers in the manufacturing sector reported slightly over 500,000 injuries and illnesses that same year – 152,000 fewer than health care workers.

“It’s a common assumption that a hospital or clinic must be a safe place to work, but the fact is that health care is a hazardous occupation,” said Vogel. “Every day, while taking care of others, health care workers face serious risks to their own health and safety.” Just a few of the many problems they face, said Vogel, include contamination from infectious disease; exposure to radiation and hazardous chemicals; sticks from needles and other sharp objects; repetitive strain injuries from heavy lifting; and the threat of workplace violence.

Despite the known hazards associated with working in health care, U.S. OSHA inspected just 138 out of thousands of U.S. hospitals in FY 2011. State safety agencies inspected an additional 233 hospitals.

“OSHA has just one inspector for every 66,000 covered employees in seven million workplaces,” said Vogel. “Certainly, the agency needs more person power and stronger enforcement authority. But in health care and other settings, the surest way to limit workplace hazards is for workers themselves to have a strong voice in setting – and enforcing – workplace standards.”

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