The Federal Government Must Help Keep all Workers Safe from COVID-19, New Commentary Says

WASHINGTON, DC (Sept. 16, 2020)--The United States is facing a massive worker safety crisis, one in which tens of thousands of workers have been infected and hundreds killed by the virus that causes COVID-19, according to a commentary published online today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). To help prevent more sickness and death, the authors say that the federal government should require that all employers implement COVID-19 prevention plans that include physical distancing, personal protective equipment, adequate ventilation, and other safety measures.

“As our economy re-opens, not only essential workers but all workers need to be protected from the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” said David Michaels, PhD, MPH, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (GW Milken Institute SPH). “If employers fail to take necessary precautions, more workers will be infected. They will inevitably bring the virus back to their families and communities leading to higher death tolls and setbacks in attempts to rebuild the economy.”

Michaels, the former assistant secretary for labor at the U.S.  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Obama Administration, wrote the opinion piece along with Gregory R. Wagner, MD, an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The authors recommend that OSHA issue an Emergency Temporary Standard that would require every employer to develop and implement an infection control plan. In addition, the Administration needs to ramp up production of personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure that all workers have access to masks and other safety gear. More than six months into the epidemic, many health care facilities still lack an adequate supply of certified N-95 masks and other PPE, Michaels and Wagner point out.

“The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic requires strong and immediate action, including by government agencies, unions, employers and workers,” the authors say in the commentary. “The White House should create a comprehensive roadmap that focuses on worker protection. Failure to exert leadership and develop effective policy in this area, including involving and engaging all affected groups and constituencies in stopping workplace spread of the virus has had and will likely continue to have serious repercussions, not just for workers, but for the health and economy of the nation.”

The commentary, “Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Worker Safety during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published online on September. 16, 2020 and will appear in the October 13 issue of JAMA.