Thanks isn’t enough when it comes to the health and safety of our essential workers.
The public displays of gratitude for the men and women who harvest our food, deliver our meals and packages, care for us in hospitals and serve us in grocery stores and pharmacies are heartwarming and an important acknowledgment of their sacrifices in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet these workers deserve much more. Before states contemplate allowing more people to return to work, we need to ensure workers have enforceable workplace protections and controls in place and clear guidance from federal authorities that puts the focus for ensuring a safe workplace on employers, not workers.
Instead, we see a fragmented national response, conflicting advice and a patchwork of uncoordinated workplace strategies, leaving too many workers to figure out their own protection.
Each April, our department hosts a Workers’ Memorial Day event at the University of Washington to honor King County workers who died on the job in the past year. On Monday, April 27, we will stand with our colleagues and solemnly read aloud the names of the dead.
How many more names will be added to our list next year of workers who died due to preventable COVID-19 exposure on the job?
We are already seeing reports of deaths among retail workers and others deemed essential. A recent ProPublica report found nearly 4,000 worker-safety complaints to federal authorities this year regarding the lack of workplace protections against the virus. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates nearly 10,000 U.S. health-care workers had COVID-19 as of April 9, with at least 27 deaths — a number that is surely an undercount due to gaps in the data.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration should be at the forefront of the pandemic response yet has been missing in action and without a permanent leader since January 2017.
The CDC recently released interim guidance for workplace safety practices in critical businesses that places the primary responsibility on workers. This sparked a social media campaign–#EssentialNotExpendable — calling on the CDC to retract the guidance so workers don’t have to choose between their jobs and their safety.
By law, the primary responsibility for workplace safety falls on employers, and many are stepping up. Washington state authorities have proactively issued guidance and specific enforceable directives that clearly outline expectations for workers and employers. This is a commendable first step.
Now we need a coordinated federal response and more of the innovation we’re seeing in some workplaces.
To break the chain of transmission, we must follow the standard hierarchy of controls to prevent occupational exposure to the new coronavirus, including:
• Eliminating hazards through strategies like “no-touch” retail that offers contactless payment, pickup and delivery.
• Engineering controls, such as installing transparent barriers to separate customers and workers as many grocery stores are doing. Or the clever “personal greenhouse” designed by a Washington doctor to serve as a chamber for health-care workers doing swab testing.
• Administrative controls, including rearranging work schedules and the layout of work spaces to increase physical distance between workers.
• The appropriate use of personal protective equipment, including the use of disposable gloves by retail workers, custodians and others.
We also need to call on our industrial hygienists, occupational medicine providers and other safety professionals who have the tools, training and expertise to assess hazards, design protective controls and prevent workplace exposures.
Without coordination at the federal level, we are risking the lives of workers who are critical to our nation’s safety, economy and, eventually, recovery. This Workers’ Memorial Day and beyond, we can pay tribute to our essential workers by renewing our commitment to prevent work-related illnesses and injuries and ensure every worker goes home safe at the end of the day.