OSHA Protections May Include Airborne Infectious Disease, Safe Patient Handling

David LaHoda , January 4, 2010

OSHA recently solidified leadership for the agency and has provided a clearer picture of the regulatory horizon.

First of all, David Michaels, PhD, MPH, assumed his position as head of OSHA when the Senate confirmed his nomination as assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health. Nominated by President Barack Obama on June 28, the Senate acted on the nomination December 3.

Michaels, an epidemiologist, has been a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, DC, and is also the author of Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.

Agency watchers assumed that any work on new, and perhaps controversial, standards, would await the establishment of a permanent director.

While Michaels as settling in, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis held an online Q&A session Dec. 7 to discuss regulations at the Department of Labor.

Solis announced that OSHA is considering airborne infectious disease protection for healthcare workers and will publish a request for information in the Federal Register in March.

A standard would require healthcare employers to protect workers from tuberculosis, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and influenza, such as H1N1, on which OSHA recently issued an enforcement directive.

When asked if an airborne infectious disease standard would be modeled after the California version, which took years to achieve consensus among employers, labor and other stakeholders, Solis said the California standard "would certainly be one important piece of information that OSHA will consider in deciding whether to propose or issue a standard." She would not predict how long it would take to issue a final standard.

Also, Solis confirmed that although OSHA has conducted several inspections, it has not yet issued any citations based on the H1N1 enforcement directive.

In an OSHA-specific session later that day, HealthLeaders Media asked OSHA interim director Jordan Barab, if the absence of airborne infectious disease standard has hampered the agency with regard to its H1N1 educational preparedness and enforcement activities?

"No, it has not hampered us," said Barab. "While a standard on airborne transmissible diseases would have been preferable, we believe that we are responding to the issues effectively using existing standards and the General Duty Clause."

On the matter of issuing an industry-wide ergonomics standard, both Solis and Barab reiterated—word-for-word in fact—"At this time, OSHA has no plans for regulatory activity." Both said that a proposal to reinstate the work-related musculoskeletal disorders column on the OSHA 300 Injury Log was not a prelude to issuing such a standard.

Concerning an industry-specific ergonomic standard, such as one for safe patient handling standard, Barab said," There are many options that OSHA might consider if the agency decides to pursue rulemaking in this area. Industry specific standards is one option that would be considered."

David LaHoda, the managing editor of Medical Environment Update and OSHA Watch, has produced healthcare training videos and consulted for medical practices and ambulatory healthcare facilities.

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