Masks against swine flu
News release came across our desk:
June 25, 2009
Kelley Applauds House Approval of Language Permitting All DHS Employees to Voluntarily Wear Protective Masks
Washington, D.C.—The leader of the union representing thousands of frontline homeland security employees today applauded House of Representatives approval of language providing these workers with the right to voluntarily wear protective masks while performing their duties.
President Colleen M. Kelley of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) has been leading the effort for that right since the outbreak more than two months ago of a virulent strain of swine flu. The language is contained in a manager’s amendment to H.R. 2892, the fiscal 2010 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill, and would extend the right throughout DHS.
“I am very pleased to see the House ensure that DHS employees who interact with the public would be free from negative personnel actions for using certain protective equipment, such as surgical masks, N95 respirators, gloves and hand sanitizers,” said President Kelley. The union has presented to both the House and Senate employee affidavits testifying to demands from supervisors that they not wear protective masks, and making those wearing such equipment remove it.
The manager’s amendment to the DHS funding measure is similar to a provision approved earlier by the House, which, because it was part of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Authorization bill, would apply only to employees of TSA, rather than to all DHS employees.
The TSA bill amendment was advanced by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce. Rep. Lynch has been a leading advocate for the right of frontline employees to wear protective equipment, including masks, while working. Also active on the issue are Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
“NTEU thanks Rep. Lynch, Rep. Price and Chairman Thompson for understanding the importance of frontline federal employees being able to protect themselves during medical outbreaks and for their subsequent leadership on this issue,” Kelley said.
In a letter to Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Rules Committee, President Kelley urged support for language giving all DHS employees the right to voluntarily wear masks.
“NTEU has been in many discussions with components of (DHS) in an attempt to make sure that employees have clear guidelines and are able to protect themselves during emergencies, such as the swine flu epidemic,” she wrote, adding: “Unfortunately, no coherent policy has emerged.”
In recent Senate testimony, NTEU pressed the importance—indeed, the urgency—of DHS providing its employees with a clear and rational policy on the wearing of personal protective equipment before a widely-predicted return this fall of the potentially-deadly swine flu. The World Health Organization has declared the current H1N1 outbreak of swine flu to be a global pandemic.
“CBP and TSA employees can interact with thousands of travelers in a single shift,” President Kelley has said. “Their work, including reviewing immigration documents, wanding passengers, questioning them and sometimes patting them down, or detaining them, requires them to be within six feet of the travelers they process.”
General guidance offered to many DHS employees recommended that they avoid crowds and maintain a distance of six feet from those exhibiting illness. “The guidelines are neither realistic nor workable for these employees,” NTEU said.
NTEU is the largest independent federal union, representing 150,000 employees in 31 agencies and departments, including the entire 24,000-employee U.S. Customs and Border Protection workforce within DHS and thousands of TSA employees at airports across the country.
For more information, visit http://www.nteu.org