February 10, 2022

AIHA, IBEC Host Summit on Protecting Vulnerable Workers

A virtual seminar held in January gathered speakers from disparate industries to discuss the challenges of keeping vulnerable workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers included first responders, construction workers, teachers’ advocates, a high school principal, representatives from labor organizations, and other experts. Moderated by OEHS professionals, the sessions addressed emergency response, education, the gig economy, and agriculture and construction.

Keynote speaker James Frederick, the deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, opened the event with a recap of the agency’s efforts to protect workers during the pandemic. Frederick, who spoke two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked OSHA’s vaccination and testing emergency temporary standard, informed attendees that OSHA was withdrawing the ETS as an enforceable regulation but not as a proposed rule. “The controls in the ETS remain vital for protecting workers,” Frederick said. “Every business that takes those steps is potentially saving lives in their workplace and in their community.”

The session on first responders featured speakers from the Los Angeles Police Department and from fire departments in Maryland, Colorado, and New York City. Jeremy Black, an EMS technician in Broomfield, Colorado, said that the pandemic “completely changed the complexion of emergency response” from rapid treatment and triage to a more deliberative approach intended to protect responders and patients from COVID-19. In Los Angeles, according to Sergeant Gordon Helper of the LAPD, COVID-19 has had a severe impact, with more than half the officers in his station having tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic. Other speakers noted that the changes brought about by the pandemic include standard use of personal protective equipment and electrostatic sprayers to decontaminate gear and vehicles.

A common theme emerging from the panel on education was that official COVID-19 guidance, especially early in the pandemic, was inadequate to address the complexity of the challenges facing schools. “Every school district is unique, but every school building within a district is [also] unique,” said Amy Bahruth, an associate director with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The unique circumstances of each school complicated attempts to provide specific health and safety guidance regarding the pandemic. Out of necessity, AFT gave broad recommendations that schools adapted to their local circumstances, Bahruth said.

Potential OEHS approaches to protecting workers in the gig economy include implementing the NIOSH Total Worker Health framework and adjusting the hierarchy of controls for specific workforces, said Corey Boles, a consultant with Cardno ChemRisk. The gig economy includes contractors, consultants, freelancers, and workers for temp agencies and contract companies. On average, these workers are typically younger and may therefore lack training on OHS issues. These workers are usually paid by the task and typically work in construction, professional and business services, ridesharing and meal delivery, retail, and hospitality.

The session on agriculture and construction identified common concerns among these workforces, including language barriers and a lack of trust in government, that complicate efforts to protect workers during the pandemic. Suicides have increased significantly among both groups of workers, who were already suffering from high levels of stress and the consequences of the opioid epidemic. The need for physical distancing during the pandemic has added to these complications by ending practices such as “tailgate talks”—discussions about health and safety issues on construction work sites.

Cosponsored by AIHA and the Integrated Bioscience and Built Environment Consortium, the seminar “Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Workers: Challenges, Solutions and Invisible Barriers” was funded by a grant from CDC/NIOSH.