Cal-OSHA Expands Ebola Standards to Protect Hospital Workers

After statewide rallies and demands from the nurses’ union this week, the California Department of Public Health and Cal-OSHA have posted updated Ebola mandates for hospitals that go beyond federal standards to ensure that at-risk employees are provided with proper training and personal protective equipment.

According to a statement issued by Cal-OSHA, the guidelines not only require that workers at risk of exposure to the Ebola virus be provided personal protective equipment that covers all parts of the body, but that employees must receive hands-on training and have the opportunity to practice putting on and taking off the protective gear.

These guidelines aim to provide additional direction in hospital inpatient settings, where the risk of infectious disease transmission is the highest, said Juliann Sum, Cal-OSHA’s acting chief.

“These updated guidelines clarify the requirements hospitals must meet to maintain workplace safety and to prevent exposure to Ebola,” she said.

Cal-OSHA’s Ebola mandates, the first to be issued in the United States, go above and beyond existing federal standards, said Bonnie Castillo, spokeswoman for National Nurses United.

“This is a monumental accomplishment because staff members including nurses will get interactive and hands-on training as opposed to computer-based training,” she said.

These new rules, which go into effect immediately, are mandatory and hospitals that fail to comply could face civil penalties. Cal-OSHA officials did not respond to calls for comment Friday. Their released statement did not explain how these rules will be enforced or what types of penalties violating hospitals will face.

However, according to a statement by National Nurses United, the California Nurses Association will “closely monitor hospital compliance with the guidelines, and work closely with Cal-OSHA on enforcement.”

Under the new or updated mandates, California hospitals are required to have full-body protective suits that meet the American Society for Testing and Materials standards. The equipment must be available for all hospital staff providing care for a suspected or confirmed Ebola patient, including employees cleaning contaminated areas and staff members helping other employees with the removal of contaminated protective gear.

The rules also require hospitals to provide air-purifying respirators with full cowl or hood for any registered nurse or staff member caring for an Ebola patient. It further requires regular training for any staff member at risk of exposure including hands-on practice with the ability to interact and ask questions. The updated regulations also provide protection against employer retaliation for whistleblowers who report violations.

For about the last month, UCI Medical Center has provided “intensive training” to staff members, said spokesman John Murray. So far, about 450 inpatient, emergency department and outpatient/ambulatory personnel have received hands-on training, he said.

“We are focusing training on personnel who work in areas with a high risk of contact with an infected patient,” Murray said. “We’re not relying solely on video training. We are providing hands-on training.”

High-risk personnel include housekeeping staff, physicians, technicians, registered nurses respiratory therapists and other staff who work in an area where an infected person would be treated, he said.

Castillo called Friday’s announcement a major victory for nurses statewide who have been demanding substantial improvements in safeguards seeking upgraded protections from the Ebola virus for nurses and hospital workers. Castillo said nurses rallied Wednesday afternoon outside UCI Medical Center and St. Joseph’s Hospital, both in Orange.

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