Occupational Health & Safety, COVID-19, and the Third Wave

This article appeared in the summer edition of the Union Stand

As we come out of a long and hard-fought 3rd wave of COVID-19 infections, we can reflect and remember some of the challenges we faced coming through it.
It was frustrating when on May 7th, we had to once again slam government and employers for not providing appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our home care members during this 3rd wave of the pandemic. We demanded they immediately provide N95 masks with fit tests for members who need them. There is no excuse for our members not being properly protected. We have been here before during the 1st and 2nd waves and lessons were learned. Here was our press release: https://nsgeu.ca/home_page/media-release-home-care-workers-being-denied-appropriate-ppe/23757/

We had to repeat our call to allow workers who can work from home – to work from home – even though this was their own advice. You can find a copy of the letter here: https://nsgeu.ca/uncategorized/nsgeu-calls-on-premier-to-allow-public-sector-workers-who-can-to-work-from-home/23740/
Unfortunately, some employers did not follow recommendations and this did put workers at risk. In early May there was an exposure at the 811 office operated by Emergency Medical Care. One of our members was exposed at work and ended up in Intensive Care as a result. A family member was also exposed as a close contact. Our members answer the calls when you dial 811 – they could have been working from home. We advised our members to file a WCB claim if they tested positive and published a press release: https://nsgeu.ca/media-releases/media-release-emci-government-fail-to-protect-811/23752/

We called on the government to make frontline workers a priority in their vaccine rollout strategy once there was community spread. So, when numbers began to climb on May 6th, we called on government to change their approach and sent a letter to the Premier, Dr. Strang, and the Associate Deputy Minister for the Department of Health & Wellness here: https://nsgeu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Premier-Rankin-Dr.-Strang-Tracey-Barbrick-Vaccines-April-2021.pdf
Throughout the pandemic, when we heard that members were not being diligent about their individual health & safety, we reminded them of their strong role in OH&S. On May 14th, we sent this to all members: https://nsgeu.ca/home_page/reminder-to-remain-vigilant-and-maintain-health-safety-protocols/23851/ This followed a message to our nurse members on May 11th: https://nsgeu.ca/home_page/advocating-on-behalf-of-nurses/23818/

Our members who work for Nova Scotia Hearing and Speech, Local 20, were asked to continue doing home visits even as the numbers of positive cases hit an all-time high in the province. On May 13th, we sent a letter to the employer on our members’ behalf and advised them of their right to refuse unsafe work. You can see the communication to members here: https://nsgeu.ca/home_page/local-20-important-message-regarding-workplace-safety/23837/ and our letter to the employer here: https://nsgeu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/hearing-and-speech-ns-masking-may-2021.pdf

For our members who work for the Department of Community Services (DCS) as Case Aides, Social Workers, Youth Counsellors/Workers, and many others, the struggle for safe working conditions and COVID safe protocols was constant. Information from their employer was slow and sometimes didn’t come at all. PPE and OH&S safety protocols are unique in many of our members’ workplaces in DCS and they require clear communication and enforcement from management. Unfortunately, our members have found that communication from the Employer has frequently been lacking and they have been left feeling unsupported and underinformed.

During the first wave, many Social Workers and Youth Workers were not supplied with adequate PPE. Now that we know so much more about the airborne transmission of the virus, OH&S safety protocols have grown in importance along with the use of PPE. Protocols like maintaining physical distance are an essential part of a safe working environment. There have been work refusals in some cases where adequate health and safety protocols have not been set up or maintained by management. In the middle of the 3rd wave, we were finally able to organize weekly meetings with Human Resources representatives from the DCS where we could address issues and concerns brought to us by the membership and discuss plans for solutions or improvements. There continues to be room for much improvement in OH&S in the DCS moving forward. We remain ready and willing to work to improve working conditions for our members.

Our members who work for the Early Intensive Behaviour Intervention Program (EIBI), conduct home visits with their clients. During this third wave of the pandemic this has become difficult to do safely for a variety of reasons including when clients have refused to wear masks. We sent a letter outlining our concerns to the employer and a communication to our members reminding them of their right to refuse unsafe work. You can read it here: https://nsgeu.ca/home_page/local-122-eibi-program-staff-important-message-regarding-home-visits/23835/
We also had one of our OH&S Officers face public criticism for their investigation into a tragic workplace death. We responded on behalf of all of our OH&S Officers and Investigators who do a professional job and work hard to hold a fair investigation of a workplace fataility. You can read our response here: https://nsgeu.ca/home_page/message-to-ohs-officers-and-investigators-from-president-maclean/23876/

Over the past year, it has been clear that our Joint OH&S Committees should play an important role during these times. General OH&S guidelines can be discussed and customized at the Committee level depending on the specific work environments of the workers and their interactions with the public.
A safety committee plays an important role in the consultation and implementation of safety protections, equipment, and protocols in workplaces. Please make sure you have an OH&S Committee at your workplace and let the union know if you do not. You can ask your employer, your Steward, or your Local President if one exists at your workplace. If you do not have one, or if it hasn’t met for over a year, you may benefit from some training on how a Committee should operate. You can request Committee training through the union: ask for NSGEU’s Occupational Health & Safety Officer, Paul Cormier.

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