“Although OSHA has no specific standard on influenza exposure, the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act - the ‘OSH Act,’ which requires employers to provide employment free from recognized hazards - will be used to protect their workers,” said acting OSHA chief Jordan Barab at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, National Nurses Congress last month in Washington, D.C .

“OSHA will quickly adjust its inspection scheduling priorities as needed to ensure that employers are following (OSHA’s 2004) guidelines (on pandemic influenza, and more recently issued guidelines specific to healthcare workers) if a pandemic in the workplace becomes a reality,” said Barab.

It is OSHA's responsibility to ensure nurses and other health care workers have the protection and training they need, according to Barab. Workers and employers need to know when it is appropriate to wear a respirator, how to get the respirator fit-tested and how to wear it properly, when to wear gloves, and how to properly put on and take off personal protective equipment, he said.

“As H1N1 influenza becomes more prominent in the United States, OSHA will be fully integrated in public communication. We will distribute news releases and public service announcements to media outlets, employers, trade associations and unions - including and most particularly AFSCME - directing people to OSHA's more detailed online resources,” said Barab.

“OSHA knows that nurses encounter serious risks from workplace violence, strains from patient handling and biohazards. We have guidance documents, fact sheets and other information on our Web site to show you and your employers how to minimize risks from these hazards. Enforceable standards exist for many of these topics, like bloodborne pathogens and ethylene oxide. For others, such as preventing back injuries and workplace violence, there are no standards, and for the past several years OSHA has not been aggressive in applying its full enforcement powers.

“These informational materials were produced with significant input from the nursing community and others in the health care profession, and I want to thank all those who participated in their development.

“Coming very soon, look for three new OSHA fact sheets on hazards in Very High-Risk Workplaces, Fit Testing Requirement for Respirators, and Use of Surgical Masks for Respiratory Protection.

“In OSHA's 38-year history, pandemic influenza is a unique challenge. However, I would characterize this situation for the workforce just as the President described it for the Nation: ‘Cause for deep concern, but not panic.’

“I am very confident of the expertise of OSHA's medical, scientific, compliance assistance and enforcement personnel. We are prepared to address the threat and we will protect our workforce,” said Barab.