Worker Protections are Essential to Reopening the Economy

Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad sent a letter to Governor Bullock on April 24, outlining the essential worker protection that must be implemented in order to safely reopen the economy. A lack of federal guidance has made it necessary for Governor Bullock to take charge and protect the men and women on the front lines of the pandemic across the state. The necessary protections and policies are outlined below.

WORKPLACE SAFETY

We must keep Montana’s workers healthy. Our workplaces need a standard of guidelines based on established science and the recognition of airborne transmission and incorporating longstanding occupational health and safety practices, such as the hierarchy of controls. The hierarchy of controls is the system for eliminating or minimizing exposure using the most effective and feasible controls, including redesigning workplaces, increasing the availability of sanitary facilities, telecommuting and other forms of social distancing. I will gladly offer the full coordination of the AFL-CIO Workplace Health and Safety Department in this effort. 

DEFINITIONS 

Key definitions, standards and related language are critical to safely reopening Montana in accordance with your phased reopening of the state as we continue to battle this dangerous pandemic. We may not have set national standards for working safely with the coronavirus, but you can set Montana’s standard so affected workers will have safety protections on the job, including personal protective equipment, training, testing, anti-retaliation protections, 

paid sick leave and more. 

CLEAR AND ENFORCEABLE STANDARDS

With your leadership, Montana can quickly implement strong, clear and enforceable workplace health and safety standards. Under the law, employers are responsible for ensuring worker safety, and OSHA and MSHA are responsible for setting and enforcing standards to hold many employers accountable, but neither have acted to set pandemic standards. Montana can issue emergency temporary standards for infectious diseases and assist all employers—including public employers—to develop and implement an infection control plan, with requirements for hazard assessment, engineering controls, work practice and administrative controls, provision of personal protective equipment, training, medical surveillance, and medical removal protections. Your administration can and should announce and conduct worksite inspections to enforce existing standards and the infectious disease standard. These clear enforcement directives can and should protect workers in every sector. 

WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTIONS 

Perhaps the most critical component of safety involves protecting the voices of workers. Working people must have the right to refuse to work if they fear exposure to the virus because they have not been provided proper protections or training to do their job safely. Montana must have stronger protections for workers who speak up to employers, public entities, social media or the press about unsafe working conditions. We also must protect workers who bring a more protective level of equipment to work than employers provide. 

We must also continue to protect those who test positive for the virus. Continuity of employment for more vulnerable workers with other health conditions, who might not be able to return to work during the pandemic, must be guaranteed. All these protections must be implemented by employers and enforced by your administration, and Montana’s government must have a plan in place to expeditiously investigate every whistleblower complaint and issue directives outlining proactive enforcement of anti-retaliation protections.

PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT 

Montana must have adequate levels and types of personal protective equipment for workers currently on the job—and for those returning to the job. A fresh and ample supply of necessary protective equipment, such as respirators and gloves, must be available for all at-risk workers.

Reusable respirators that provide higher levels of respiratory protection than disposable N95 respirators must be available and prioritized for workers with the greatest exposures. The use of personal protective equipment must be accompanied by training; fit testing; safe don and doff processes, including locations and procedures; disposal or sanitation protocols; and enforcement of OSHA’s respiratory protection standard (1910.134). 

Montana can use this transition time before the reopening of our economy to acquire the PPE we need and to plan for using reusable respirators in addition to disposable respirators, and to establish training, fit-testing and disinfection protocols.  

TESTING AND TRACING

Montana still needs widespread coronavirus testing to assess the threat to public health before, during and after each step in the phased reopening of Montana, our communities and our workplaces. 

Testing is not yet widely available but must it be, and fast, free and everywhere. We need a strategic plan to ensure the production and distribution of a sufficient number of reliable testing kits, with priority testing for front-line workers. However, safeguards must be put in place before any use of antibody testing for purposes of public health benchmarks, and employers must not be allowed to use antibody testing to determine who can work. 

Employers, in coordination with local and state public health departments, must trace the contacts of infected workers and remove exposed workers from work with pay and without retaliation. Those who have been potentially exposed must be informed and protected from a loss of income, benefits or employment. At the same time, there must be appropriate safeguards in place for the protection of worker data and privacy. As a matter of public health and worker safety, all workers—especially essential workers on the job today and anyone who would be returning to work during the phased reopening—must have a guarantee of 14 days of paid sick leave.

Montana should also oversee a system of recording, reporting and tracking worker infections. There must be a presumption that COVID-19 is a work-recordable illness for all workers. In addition, we need real-time reporting of infections from the workplace to state and county officials and health departments.

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