Employers have the responsibility of ensuring a safe workplace for their employees. Healthcare workers specifically risk injuries, needle sticks, bloodborne pathogens, and airborne diseases but regulations are in place to afford them the proper personal protection equipment (PPE) needed to keep themselves safe on the job.
While COVID-19 has temporarily upended much of the rules that are in place to help health workers, healthcare staff are struggling to get the basic tool required to keep themselves safe.
Regularly, the Occasional Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), who has drafted regulations to protect employees from workplace harm, enforces the rules by identifying hazards and charging employers to fix any problems found through interviews and investigation. Employers are given a timeline to right any wrongs and reevaluated at a future date.
The skeleton of the safety laws Americans have today were put in place because of employee unions. Child labor laws, overtime pay and the basic injury protection laws all came about when workers banded together and fought for their rights.
As of this writing, hospitals are running critically low on the basic PPE required to prevent healthcare workers from contracting the airborne 2019-nCoV. My employer is having us reuse one-time use surgical masks for two full weeks before we are issued a replacement. Just this week a doctor whom I work for advised us to wear our gloves all day and use hand sanitizer or alcohol swabs on them to keep them clean throughout the day.
Of course there will not be any OSHA inspections during the pandemic but healthcare workers need to be protected. Those of us in out-patient ophthalmology should not get any PPE before the frontline staff who are battling COVID-19, but we definitely deserve to be safe. Unfortunately, that is hard to do when supplies are so low.
First and foremost, those working to care for those with COVID-19 need to be taken care of– PPE, compensation, mental health assistance, at the very minimum. Second to that, anyone who is an “essential employee” should be guaranteed their own PPE. After all, the whistleblower who brought international attention to, and ultimately died from, this novel coronavirus was an ophthalmologist, not a frontline worker.
I for one feel that healthcare workers, including those eyecare, could stand to unionize. While doctors and nurses are at least granted a living wage, many of us techs in optometry and ophthalmology (EMTs and as well as medical assistants) are not. Some states pay as low as minimum wage to $10 an hour for these workers and many are essential health employees. COVID-19 has taught everyone something and for me it is how we truly treat our healthcare workers when the going gets tough.