Throughout COVID-19, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have continued to complete their site inspections to ensure businesses are meeting their compliance requirements across safety standards. With COVID-19 being transmitted primarily through breathing in contagious droplets, there has been a real focus around the respiratory protection standard. Because of this, there have been significant compliance issues that have been found, making respiratory protection one of the most commonly cited violations. With PPE supplies depleted, healthcare facilities pushed to the brink and the people working in these environments under immense stress, it is clear that rules aren’t always going to be followed strictly, as well as honest mistakes will be made. Regardless of the intent, by breaching compliance standards, this can have detrimental implications for both the people that work in these settings and those who receive care or treatment.
Following complaints, referrals and reported fatalities, OSHA has completed comprehensive inspections across hospitals, nursing homes and long term care settings. From these visits, to date, OSHA has issued over $3.65m in violations related to COVID-19. Among the violations, the most frequent have been failure to provide a medical evaluation before fit testing or using a respirator, failure to perform an appropriate fit test, failure to establish, implement and maintain a written respiratory protection program, failure to provide an appropriate respirator, failure to train workers in respirator use and failure to store respirators appropriately.
The standards have been created for a reason and that’s to ensure those that are wearing the respirators are actually getting the protection that is required for that environment. For some users, tight-fitting respirators are not appropriate for them as they have underlying respiratory health issues and cannot safely use these. Without completing a pulmonary function test, this information is not captured and this can put the user’s health at risk. Because every person’s face is a different size and healthcare, in particular, being a female dominant industry, with females tending to have smaller faces, tight-fitting respirators aren’t all going to fit appropriately which can cause performance failure. This issue is further added to with supply issues leading people to switch brands, which fit differently again.
The result of all of this has a number of effects. First and foremost, the workers are placed in very high-risk situations and without wearing PPE effectively, the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 is increased. Healthcare workers are already disproportionately contracting the disease and these failures of businesses are starting to show why there are such high infection rates among these groups. In a time where there is already a significant shortage of healthcare workers, further reducing this workforce with time off work to isolate and in worst cases, death, this significantly compromises the healthcare systems effectiveness. With less staff able to provide the same calibre of healthcare services, this has a flow-on effect with the general public.
On top of these health and performance issues, there are also significant financial implications for businesses that breach the respiratory protection standard. For serious fines, this can be up to $13,494 per violation. For other than serious that are directly correlated to job safety and health, but aren’t serious in nature, these wear a cost of up to $13,494 per violation, for failure to abate, these are at $13,494 per day beyond abatement date and for willful for repeated, this can be up to $134,937. At present, it would imaginable that within many healthcare settings there will be a significant number of staff that would not have been fit tested, have not completed pulmonary function testing, are not trained in respirator use, and or will not have a written and implemented respiratory protection program.
These safety standards along with the compliance inspections are there for a reason and that’s to ensure the safety of people at work. Many of the respiratory protection standard violations are simple fixes and do not require significant finances or effort to maintain. But they do ensure that those who are coming into work each day will leave safe and healthy, and right now that could not be of more importance.
OSHA. (2020). Common COVID-19 Citations: Helping Employers Better Protect Workers and Comply with OSHA Regulations. Retrieved from Occupational Safety and Health Administration: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/covid-citations-guidance.pdf
OSHA. (2020). Lessons Learned: Frequently Cited Standards Related to COVID-19 Inspections. Retrieved from Occupational Safety and Health Administration: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/covid-citations-lessons.pdf
OSHA. (2020). OSHA Penalties. Retrieved from United States Department of Labor: https://www.osha.gov/penalties
OSHA. (2020, December 11). U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA Announces $3,504,345. Retrieved from United States Department of Labor: https://www.osha.gov/news/newsreleases/national/12112020