Now Labeled a Pandemic, Swine Flu Poses Threat to Health Care Workers

The H1N1 (swine flu) virus is now the first global flu pandemic in 41 years. The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday declared the virus a Phase-6 pandemic, its highest level of warning.

The declaration means the virus has circled the globe and poses a threat to spread more rapidly among populations. So far, there have been 27,737 cases of swine flu and 141 deaths in 74 countries. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there have been 13,000 cases of the flu and at least 27 deaths.

WHO classifies the reported cases as mild to moderate. But two other factors are causes for concern. About half of those who have died from the H1N1 virus were young and healthy people not normally susceptible to flu. Second, the virus continues to spread in the warm summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when flu viruses normally disappear.

When the virus was found to have spread to the United States earlier this year, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommended that employers follow recently issued guidelines for protecting workers from pandemic flu, and CDC issued new interim guidelines to protect health care workers from the H1N1 infection

But studies showed that numerous states and health care facilities were not following the guidelines. Last month, the AFL-CIO and several unions urged OSHA to protect health care workers and other front-line employees by issuing a hazard alert and/or compliance directive that makes clear that exposure to the H1N1 virus poses a recognized hazard to workers and requires protective measures.  OSHA is currently evaluating the unions’ request.

In April, a report by the AFL-CIO and several unions revealed that health care workers are at risk because many of the nation’s health care facilities are not prepared to deal with a pandemic.

Don’t forget to check out the AFL-CIO’s pandemic flu site, which includes vital resources for health care workers, firefighters, educators and more. Recently added to the site are five updated fact sheets:

  • Basic Facts About Pandemic Flu and the H1N1 (Swine) Flu
  • Protecting Workers During Pandemic Flu
  • Protecting Health Care Workers During Pandemic Flu
  • Respirators: One Way to Protect Workers Against Pandemic Flu
  • What the Union Can Do: Preparing the Workplace for Pandemic Flu

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. He carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He’s also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold blood plasma, and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

This article originally appeared in the AFL-CIO Now Blog on June 12, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.