The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Tuesday that it has launched a program in California to inspect up to 200 health-care facilities and mortuaries to make sure workers are properly protected from exposure to viruses that cause hepatitis B and AIDS.
During the next 12 months “inspectors from our seven OSHA area offices in California will be making unannounced visits to health-care facilities . . . as part of a national emphasis program to reduce the risk to workers of on-the-job exposure,” said Frank Strasheim, OSHA’s regional administrator in San Francisco.
“We also will be taking worker complaints on any lack of proper protective gloves, masks and other personal protection items,” he added.
The inspections will be aimed at private sector employers who have 11 or more workers and deal with victims of blood-borne diseases, including hospitals, blood banks, dental offices, nursing homes and mortuaries. Workers at health-care facilities run by the state or municipalities, such as Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, are under the jurisdiction of Cal/OSHA and are not subject to these federal inspections.
Hepatitis B may infect 18,000 health-care workers annually in the United States, Strasheim said. Of that number, nearly 10% become long-term carriers of the virus. About 300 hepatitis B victims die each year of the infection or complications, he added.
California has a significantly high number of hepatitis B cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. As of July 30, about 21% of the nation’s 14,888 cases of AIDS were in California, according to the center.
Strasheim said experts believe that up to 1.5 million people in the nation have the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
OSHA inspectors will scrutinize the facilities’ training programs, education, housekeeping, general handling of materials, including needles and waste products, and whether employers are providing proper personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, gowns and safety goggles, according to Mel Cassidy, OSHA’s assistant regional administrator in San Francisco.
Last year, two unions petitioned OSHA to promulgate an emergency temporary standard in an attempt to regulate workplace exposures to AIDS and other blood-borne diseases. The agency rejected the petition. Jim Foster, an OSHA spokesman in Washington, said that in the short run the agency was able to handle the problem on a case-by-case basis with its current powers.
But he said the agency was sufficiently concerned about the problem to begin compiling information to promulgate a permanent national standard. He said that the proposed rule is scheduled to be issued in December and that public hearings will follow, with the goal of achieving a permanent standard by the end of 1989.
Additionally, he said that late last year the agency sent a special mailing on AIDS to every health-care employer in the country that it could find, urging them to take special precautions in regard to blood-borne diseases.
Tuesday’s announcement was called a “positive development” by Peggy Connerton, director of public policy for the Service Employees International Union, one of the two unions that petitioned for the emergency standard last year.
However, she added, “For every step forward they (OSHA) take, they take half a step back.” Connerton criticized a recent OSHA decision to change enforcement policy in regard to hepatitis B, a disease that OSHA officials say can be controlled by vaccination.
During the last year, she said, OSHA had required employers to provide employees a free vaccination against the disease. Connerton said seven employers had been cited under the agency’s general duty clause for failing to offer the vaccine free. But last month, she said, the agency changed the policy, saying that employers did not have to provide it free.
OSHA said employers desiring more information on the California program can contact its offices in Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Walnut Creek or West Covina or by calling toll free to (800) 648-1003.