SEIU Nurse Tells OSHA What’s What on Its 40th Anniversary

Cathy Stoddart, RN, BSN, Chair of the Nurse Alliance of SEIU Healthcare Policy and Politics Committee, and a staff nurse at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA, took part in an informative and distinguished panel at the Center for American Progress (CAP) last week, which held an event honoring the 40-year anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The event aired on C-SPAN, which you can watch here.

The facilitator of the panel told Cathy that he didn’t think that many people generally think of healthcare workers when it comes to OSHA and dangers on the job. He asked Cathy to explain what nurses face and how OSHA might have helped them over the years.

Cathy told the audience that by the early 1980s, more than 17,000 healthcare workers contracted hepatitis-B and about 300 died each year, a phenomena she said is often referred to as the “healthcare workers’ disease.” Cathy said that because of inadvertent needle sticks, healthcare workers were contracting hepatitis-B from contact with the needles and blood. “In the early 1980s I worked with a nurse who had been exposed to hepatitis-B through an accidental needle stick,” said Cathy. “She died later that year.”

Think about Cathy’s story and multiply it by 300–that is a lot of healthcare workers killed on the job.

SEIU members led the charge in a five year-long campaign to achieve passage of the 1991 OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens Standard.

“Today,” Cathy added, “as a direct result of our actions, hepatitis-B cases among healthcare workers plummeted by 97% and deaths are rare.”

Cathy said that early in her career it was very rare for nurses to wear gloves. Gloves were only ever used for surgery and sterile dressing changes. Whereas patients used to be afraid if they saw their nurse wearing gloves, “now they are scared if they see us without them!”

“Back then the nurses carried needles on a tray or in a foam block, today needle boxes are in every room, if we have to use them at all. We now have safe needles and entire needle systems for our protection.” Cathy stressed the fortunate and unusual relationship the union has with the Allegheny management. Their joint labor-management committee–Life Safety–sits down as equal partners to negotiate a number of issues. “My hospital does the right thing in being committed with the union to have a safe hospital,” said Cathy.

As a side note: we learned that Allegheny’s management was excited that Cathy was asked to be part of this panel. The hospital WANTED Cathy to share how both labor and management are working together to make a safe hospital for both its workers and its patients.

The CAP panelists were asked about some of the safety and health challenges that still remain in their workplace. Cathy mentioned safe patient handling, airborne infectious disease precautions, and then pointed out the need for standards around workplace violence. “Nurses are not just in hospitals. We are in prisons, mental institutions, nursing homes, and now, in the communities.” She said that we need to work at creating standards that protect workers from violence on the job.

Cathy and the other panelists stressed that their union brings them a voice in the workplace. The message we took away from this is that although we have challenges ahead of us, as we educate ourselves on the issues, we can push each day to make the needed changes happen.

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