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Cal-OSHA says hospitals must provide Ebola protections for workers

A nurse at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco protests lack of Ebola preparedness in October. The issue will be the focus of national demonstrations Wednesday.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The National Nurses United union has been demanding tougher Ebola protection measures for health care workers.

California health workers must wear full protective gear and battery-powered respirators when confronted by the bodily fluids of an Ebola patient, according to a new mandate from Cal-OSHA released Friday. The state agency is now also requiring hospitals to provide standardized Ebola training.

So far there have been no diagnosed cases of the deadly infection in the state.  The National Nurses United union and its local affiliate, the California Nurses Association, have been pushing state leaders to create tougher, uniform Ebola guidelines for hospitals since two nurses in Texas contracted the disease.

The regulations set out by Cal-OSHA are not new; officials there have pulled together existing standards regarding infectious diseases and applied them specifically to the Ebola virus.  

"This new guidance lays out in concrete terms how our existing regulations apply to protect workers from the Ebola virus," said Juliann Sum, acting chief of Cal-OSHA.

She said an example of the new specificity is the requirement for an exposure control plan. Hospitals are already required to have such plans in place for certain situations, but now they must have one for Ebola and they must allow employees to contribute to the process of creating the plan.

The nurses' union praised Cal-OSHA for requiring compliance with its rules, pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines are merely recommendations. 

The union is particularly pleased that California is requiring its hospitals to outfit workers with full protective gear and battery-powered respirators whenever they might come in contact with an Ebola patient’s bodily fluids.

The CDC  only recommends that respirators be available to workers in these situations.

If hospitals don’t comply with the new guidelines, they will face civil penalties, said Sum.

The California Nurses Association called Cal-OSHA's rules a "benchmark" for the nation.

"This now allows us to ensure the hospitals will follow these requirements," said Bonnie Castillo, director of registered nurse response network for National Nurses United. "Because now we have something that is enforceable, we have something that is uniform and applies to every single hospital."

In a  statement, the California Hospital Association said it is reviewing the latest guidance from the state.

"Hospitals will continue to work closely with Cal/OSHA officials as hands-on training sessions continue for those employees who are most likely to provide care to patients with Ebola," the statement said.

Over the last few months executives from L.A. County+USC Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente and other hospitals have publicly outlined protocols to protect workers, including training and protective gear.

Sum said this new guidance puts everyone on the same page.

"The guidelines are a way to confirm or double check that they’ve already put those  requirements in place," Sum said. "It’s also a way for workers to see if the requirements are being met and the reasons for the requirements."

The guidelines go into effect immediately.  Sum said Cal-OSHA is already planning trainings, information sessions and site visits to hospitals.