On July 16, 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that it is launching a campaign that aims to protect healthcare workers from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) related to patient handling.  While this campaign expressly targets the District of Columbia and three nearby states, it is part of a broader campaign by OSHA, unions, and health worker advocates to put increased pressure on inspections in the healthcare industry.

A. Public Citizens’ Report:

As part of this effort, the pro-union advocacy group Public Citizen released a July 17th report entitled: Health Care Workers Unprotected emphasizing that:

(1)  OSHA inspects a disproportionately low number of healthcare entities;

(2)  more injuries occur in the healthcare sector than any other; and

(3)  OSHA lacks adequate standards to address healthcare industry-specific hazards related to safe-patient handling, workplace violence and bloodborne pathogens.

B. Public Citizen’s Recommendations:

Based on its Report, Public Citizen recommended that OSHA:

(1)  promulgate a safe patient handling standard to address ergonomic stressors and MSDs that requires the use of engineering controls, lift teams and mechanical lifting devices;

(2)  promulgate a “zero-tolerance” workplace violence standard that: (a) promotes security plan development; (b) encourages prompt incident reporting; and (c) deters employer retaliation; and  

(3)  amend the current bloodborne pathogens standard to ensure that: (a) employees are consulted during the purchase of sharp objects; (b) that employers’ purchase the best available sharp needle technology; and (c) that employers comprehensively document and continually review all sharp device injury logs.

C. Reading Behind the Lines:

These union-backed efforts follow the release of an April 5, 2013, OSHA letter of interpretation, wherein the agency announced for the first time that employees may select outside union agents to represent them during non-union worksite inspections.

OHSA’s April 5th interpretation will undoubtedly encourage unions to get involved in OSHA inspections in non-organized facilities as a means of gaining access to the facility.  

These OSHA developments provide an open door to many union organizers targeting the healthcare industry — an industry sought after by labor organizations in recent years.

Now more than ever, healthcare employers should engage in vigorous compliance with federal and state safety standards.