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Nevada health care union slams OSHA for ‘turning their backs on us’

Updated April 22, 2020 - 12:11 am

Nevada’s largest health care union slammed state officials Tuesday for not thoroughly investigating workplace safety complaints at hospitals.

Service Employees International Union, Local 1107 board member Jody Domineck said it was “completely unacceptable” that the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not performing work-site inspections for any of the more than two dozen complaints made against hospitals since the state’s coronavirus outbreak began in early March.

“Their unwillingness to even step foot in the building that they know that we are being asked to do things that aren’t safe,” said Domineck, a registered nurse at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center in Las Vegas. “I believe that is absolutely them turning their backs on us.”

Hospitals across Nevada have faced 26 complaints in the past seven weeks, more than OSHA typically receives in an entire year. It’s likely even more are on the way.

SEIU Local 1107 is preparing “to file lots of charges to OSHA,” union executive director Grace Vergara-Macta said during a news conference Tuesday. She could not be reached for further comment.

As of April 16, more than 130 health care workers in Clark County have contracted the coronavirus, according to the Southern Nevada Health District.

The bulk of complaints are against Clark County’s short-term acute-care hospitals, the front line of treating patients most severely sickened by the coronavirus. Most of the nine complaints that have been closed and made public alleged inadequate access to protective equipment.

But instead of conducting on-site inspections to determine the validity of complaints against hospitals and other companies, OSHA is resolving them through written inquiries to protect the health and safety of its 14 investigators, agency spokeswoman Teri Williams wrote in an email.

At some work sites, like construction projects, investigators are looking for violations from their vehicles or without physically entering job sites. For hospitals, complaints are deemed resolved after administrators show that policies are in place to address the alleged workplace hazards.

Gov. Steve Sisolak said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon that OSHA, like other state agencies, had been stretched thin by the pandemic. He said he believed that OSHA had been conducting worksite inspections but his office would look into the union’s complaint.

“If they haven’t completed one, we’ll check with OSHA and see exactly what went on,” Sisolak said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, OSHA had received 524 complaints in March and April. More than 370 were related to the coronavirus, Williams wrote. By comparison, the agency received just 231 complaints during all of March and April last year.

The coronavirus-related complaints have often involved protective gear shortages, alleged unenforced social distancing requirements and disputes over whether an occupation should be considered essential, Williams wrote.

“The increase in complaints is directly related to the fear and concern for personal health and safety as well as the fear of transmitting the virus to household members with underlying conditions,” she wrote.

‘Grossly undersupplied’

A global shortage of protective gear has led many U.S. hospitals to change how they distribute their limited inventory.

While the shifts in guidelines have come at the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some Nevada hospital workers allege they’ve been instructed to go even further.

In late March, an employee at Carson City’s largest hospital filed an OSHA complaint claiming their employer was “grossly undersupplied with personal protective equipment” for the coronavirus outbreak.

Workers at Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center were being asked to reuse face masks and gowns while seeing multiple patients, the complaint alleged. In some cases, workers were being denied protective equipment altogether.

“Someone needs to be held accountable,” the employee wrote. “The administration has proven ill (equipped) to provide its employees with standard protective equipment.”

A second complaint was submitted against the hospital a few days later. It alleged nursing staff were expected to reuse single-use protective gear or were not given any at all.

OSHA records show both cases were closed after hospital administrators sent investigators a letter stating they could not verify that any staff member had been denied protective gear. They also included a copy of the hospital’s written policy allowing for “limited reuse” of protective gear during the pandemic-spurred shortage.

Investigators never stepped foot inside the hospital.

In an email sent to the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Tuesday, hospital spokeswoman Diane Rush wrote that all of Carson Tahoe Regional’s caregivers have had access to protective gear, even during efforts to conserve inventory.

“We believe our proactive actions have ensured a safe work environment for our staff,” Rush wrote. “If we keep our staff safe, they will be available to keep our community safe if COVID-19 hospitalizations keep increasing.”

Hospital workers infected

The health district’s determination that more than 130 Clark County health care workers have contracted the coronavirus is almost certainly an undercount.

Medical investigators have been unable to survey many of the more than 3,000 county residents infected by the disease.

The health district figures do not distinguish whether the infected are workers at local hospitals or private provider offices. However, some local hospital systems have acknowledged members of their staff have been infected.

University Medical Center spokeswoman Danita Cohen said about 25 employees are or have been infected. At least two are nurses, the employees’ union revealed this month.

An OSHA complaint was filed against UMC on March 23. The case remains under investigation and therefore private.

HCA Healthcare spokesman Antonio Castelan said an unspecified number of workers at its local hospitals have contracted the coronavirus, including “some that have made a full recovery.”

A nurse at HCA’s MountainView Hospital contracted the virus in March while she was treating patients. She received several weeks of intensive care treatment at another local hospital before recovering and being discharged last week.

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @DavidsonLVRJ on Twitter.

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