August 2021 EHS News

By August 9, 2021 No Comments

Biden requires federal workers to be vaccinated or undergo repeated tests

President Joe Biden announced sweeping new pandemic requirements aimed at boosting vaccination rates for millions of federal workers and contractors as he lamented the “American tragedy” of rising-yet-preventable deaths among the unvaccinated.

Federal workers will be required to sign forms attesting they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else comply with new rules on mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing and more.

The strict new guidelines are aimed at increasing sluggish vaccination rates among the huge number of Americans who draw federal paychecks — and to set an example for private employers around the country.

The federal government directly employs about 4 million people, but Biden’s action could affect many more when federal contractors are factored in. New York University professor of public service Paul Light estimates there are nearly 7 million more employees who could potentially be included, combining those who work for companies that contract with the government and those working under federal grants.

California and New York City said they would require government employees to either be vaccinated or face repeated testing requirements.

Biden’s announcement about the federal workforce comes as other employers — albeit much smaller ones — are considering similar requirements.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which addresses workplace complaints about discrimination over race, religion, sex and other characteristics, issued guidance in May that said that employers could mandate vaccines for workers to work on-site, as long as they do it in ways that don’t run afoul of civil rights and disability statutes. And the Justice Department followed with a similar memo that said that federal law does not prohibit public and private employers from requiring a vaccine, even if it has been approved only for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration.

Recent court rulings, in cases filed by groups opposed to mandates, have upheld these requirements, too.

But many companies so far have shied away from vaccine mandates, opting instead for softer guidance urging or recommending the vaccine.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs hospitals and clinics around the country will possibly mandate coronavirus vaccines for more than 100,000 front-line health-care workers, making it the first federal agency to do so.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines, urging vaccinated people to begin wearing masks again indoors, if they are in areas with high transmissibility or live with vulnerable family members — a reflection of the greater threat posed by the variant than earlier iterations of the virus.

The White House told its employees in a staff-wide email in the afternoon that it was requiring everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks while on the premises, effective immediately.

The environmental impact of vaccination waste in the time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased vigilance over the proper disposal of vaccine-related materials, such as vials, needles, syringes, and bandages, according to Pharmacy Times.

It is important to know the regulations for the proper disposal of items used during immunizations. For example, there must be a safe method to dispose of used needles and syringes, so sharps disposal containers should be present at all times during the immunization process. Different requirements exist for the disposal of empty or partially empty vaccine vials, as well as of PPE, which can be disposed of either as medical waste or in the regular trash depending on certain guidelines. Safe and compliant disposal is required and regulated by state and federal agencies.

Disposal requirements for empty vaccine vials are dependent upon the state in which the waste is generated.

The days of vaccine lotteries are waning. Here come the mandates…

Health officials say the nation’s lagging vaccine rates are creating a spiraling public health crisis as the unvaccinated rapidly get sick and the protective power of vaccines is given a “stress test.” A growing chorus of voices say people who resist vaccinations should face pressure — and consequences.

Some hospital administrators agree, and healthcare workers who refused to get vaccinated have been fired or quit in New Jersey and Texas. In New York City, public health workers who refuse to get vaccinated will face weekly COVID tests.

Multiple experts told USA TODAY that a virus circulating at high rates among unvaccinated people tests the effectiveness of vaccines. It also increases the chance that even worse variants of the virus will arise.

Meanwhile, Israel, France and Italy ramped up pressure on unvaccinated people by unveiling various rules requiring people to prove vaccination, prior infection or a recent COVID test to gather in some public places.

The future of vaccine mandates in the U.S. will be likely driven by employers — not federal or state governments, according to Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health.

Employers will be increasingly motivated to make sure their workforce isn’t sickened en masse and that infected workers don’t endanger customers, Jha said. That’s especially true in healthcare, he said.

A cloud of legal ambiguity has hovered over vaccine mandates for months because no COVID-19 vaccine has yet been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The vaccines have been distributed under an emergency use authorization status, and an April analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found it was “unclear whether COVID-19 vaccination could be legally mandated while the FDA’s (emergency use authorization) is in place.”

For now, many employers, especially ones outside healthcare, are likely to remain hesitant to mandate vaccines until the full approval comes, Jay Wolfson, a public health expert at the University of South Florida, told USA TODAY.

That approval could diminish the threat of employees fighting the mandates in court, Wolfson said. However, such approval could be months away.

Momentum for vaccine mandates seems to be building — which could ultimately matter much more than any mask-wearing guidelines

·         Facebook, Google and Netflix all said that they would require many employees to have been vaccinated for Covid-19, with limited exceptions for medical or religious reasons. The companies joined Morgan Stanley, The Washington Post and several other high-profile private employers.

More than 600 universities have announced mandates for students or employees. California State, the country’s largest four-year public university system, joined the list Tuesday. Many hospitals also have mandates, including the sprawling Veterans Health Administration and the Mayo Clinic.

Still, vaccine mandates remain the exception. The vast majority of private companies have not required their workers to be vaccinated. Nor have almost any major companies required their customers — like airline passengers or theater goers — to be vaccinated. (One hurdle, some companies say, is the F.D.A.’s failure to grant the vaccines full approval, despite strong endorsements by the F.D.A.’s leaders.)

CDC urges vaccinated people to wear masks indoors: What this means for employers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revised its recommendations for fully vaccinated individuals, and the change could pose new headaches for employers.

The CDC said fully vaccinated individuals in COVID-19 hot spots should wear masks when indoors.

The recommendation, which comes amid a surge in cases due to the Delta variant, is a reversal of its May announcement that said masks were no longer needed for those who were fully vaccinated.

The new guidance says fully vaccinated individuals should wear a mask indoors in public places in areas of substantial or high transmission. Employers can determine their area’s transmission status using this tool. According to the CDC’s map, most of the Southeast — including all of Florida — is currently subject to the new recommendations. The Northeast has the lowest concentration of affected areas. As of today, 63% of U.S. counties are subject to the recommendations.

The change could have significant ramifications for employers as OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance has generally dovetailed with the latest CDC recommendations. OSHA has not yet confirmed whether it will update its guidance or disclosed a timeline for an update, which could leave employers in another extended state of limbo.

Martha Boyd, a shareholder at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, said employers would be well-served to consider the CDC’s guidance as something OSHA will expect to see when it inspects a workplace.

The CDC’s new recommendations come as vaccine mandates are on the rise — particularly for government and health care workers.

Employment law experts previously said OSHA’s June guidance created de facto incentives for private employers to mandate the vaccine because it essentially freed them from mask or social distancing requirements if their entire company was vaccinated. CDC recommendations could eliminate those incentives while also leading to friction with vaccinated employees who don’t want to wear masks.

Additionally, with the CDC’s new mask recommendation focusing only on COVID-19 hot spots, some companies with multiple locations could be forced to navigate an evolving patchwork of recommendations as cases ebb and flow in different states and cities.

Human performance principles and removing reporting stigma

Newer employee safety techniques such as Human Performance (HP) based error prevention help provide greater accident avoidance as the reporting includes all errors, according to an article in Transmission & Distribution World.

Human performance is a work process that analyzes how actions result in mistakes and how education and relevant procedures can reduce or eliminate mistakes. Human performance principles help an individual maintain positive control of a work situation, ensuring that what is intended to happen is all that happens.

The core principles of HP are:

  1. People are fallible, and even the best people make mistakes
  2. Error-likely situations are predictable, manageable, and preventable
  3. Individual behavior is influenced by organizational processes and values
  4. People achieve high levels of performance largely because of the encouragement and reinforcement received from leaders, peers and subordinates
  5. Events can be avoided by understanding the reasons mistakes occur and applying the lessons learned from past events (or errors)

In the spirit of these principles, there has been an attempt to remove the fear or stigma associated with reporting less than desirable occurrences in the field with a new, underlying goal of learning from them and ultimately preventing serious injury as opposed to simply assigning blame.

Your post-Covid workplace: Algorithms, wearables and robots

How can technology make workplaces safer as more Americans resume their routines? It’s an especially urgent question considering how Covid-19 stormed through factories and food processing plants during the height of the pandemic.

“It’s exciting times,” says Jay Vietas, the chief of the emerging technologies branch at Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Vietas points to a long list of options for employers, from augmented reality systems that could map out ventilation systems in mines and prepare workers for dangerous situations, to machines equipped with computer vision that can identify potential assembly line mishaps.

Vietas’s CDC colleague, researcher Hongwei Hsiao, points to other scenarios in which robots may be able to ease repetitive lifting — a source of lower back pain and other health problems — and generally “[take] over tedious, dirty or less safe jobs humans have to perform.”

But one person’s tedious labor is another person’s job. Many worry that more sophisticated technology will edge out humans and leave them without work. That’s an unsettled debate among economists and the like.

Hsiao argues that “no matter how good robots are, we need humans to operate, repair or do management work.” There are also more subtle risks: being unfamiliar with new technology, might introduce new errors.

Vietas said he felt the field of workplace safety tech was being “force-fed” by the pandemic’s emergence. “It’s the maturation of technology,” he concluded. “This will become part of daily life.”

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