The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has gained the attention of the world. As this emerging disease continues to spread, the World Health Organization and governments around the world are working to contain and treat the outbreak.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is providing continual updates. Guidance and information also include local and state public health agencies, State Department of Industrial Relations (e.g., California OSHA), the medical community and the media, including Lexipol’s digital media communities PoliceOne, Corrections1, FireRescue1 and EMS1, which have addressed issues such as the quarantine of public safety personnel and what law enforcement officers need to know about coronavirus.
While communities deal with this communicable disease threat and develop methods and strategies to protect the public, public safety agencies must review their health and safety procedures, including mandated exposure control and respiratory protection plans. Coronavirus is the most discussed communicable disease at this time, but there are other communicable diseases – such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B, bacterial meningitis and the flu – that public safety members may become exposed to, creating risk for infection.
Public safety employers and workers in healthcare settings are required to have comprehensive exposure control and respiratory protection plans to prevent or minimize employees’ occupational exposure to blood and other potentially infectious materials (OPIM). Agencies that subscribe to Lexipol’s policy solutions have access to comprehensive policies to help them plan for healthcare emergencies such as coronavirus, including the Communicable Diseases Policy, Personal Protective Equipment Policy, Illness and Injury Prevention Policy, and Occupational Disease and Work-Related Injury Reporting Policy.
Such policies are written to address all communicable diseases and exposures, rather than specific viruses, so agencies do not have to scramble to update policies for each new threat. Outbreaks such as the coronavirus, however, create timely opportunities to review your agency’s policies and plans surrounding communicable diseases and exposure control.
Exposure Control Plan
An exposure control plan is essential for all agencies and facilities in which employees may come into contact with blood or other bodily fluids. Some factors and questions to consider when developing or reviewing an exposure control plan include:
Exposure determination: Which persons or groups of persons are at risk for exposure to infectious diseases due to the specific nature of their assignment? Peace officers and EMS providers are at elevated risks for exposure to infectious diseases, but support staff who have direct contact with persons who may have infectious diseases may also qualify to be a part of an agency’s exposure plan.
The schedule and method of compliance of the applicable regulatory sections:
- Vaccinations – Do your employees have the necessary vaccinations? Employers must offer specific vaccines within a specified hired date (e.g., hepatitis B, flu, and other recommended vaccinations by the CDC). When a vaccine is developed for the coronavirus, this too may be one of the vaccines that the employer must provide.
- Post-exposure evaluation – Which medical provider will conduct evaluation and follow-up when an employee is exposed? Do your employees know where to go?
- Communication of hazards to employees – Are labels affixed to containers of regulated waste and refrigerators and freezers containing blood and other potentially infectious materials (OPIM)? Are isolation signs posted when isolation rooms, booths, vehicles or areas are being occupied by highly suspect or known infectious disease cases?
- Training – Are employees trained on the exposure control plan on an annual basis?
- Recordkeeping – Who maintains the records for each employee with occupational exposure and for how long?
Effective procedures for evaluating the circumstances surrounding exposure incidents: How do you gather information to review exposures and identify remediations? Applicable details include work practice controls, sharps injury log information and engineering control devices. Agencies should involve employees in the review and update of the exposure control plan for the procedures they perform.
Many states publish guidance to help agencies develop an Exposure Control Plan, such as this guide from CAL OSHA.
Respiratory Protection Plan
The respiratory protection plan reduces or prevents exposure to air contaminated with harmful dust, smoke and gases.
Within public safety, the fire service is most closely associated with respiratory protection, but all public safety agencies should have a plan in place. Consider, for instance, a narcotics investigator involved in clandestine lab investigations or a corrections officer assigned to an isolated inmate requiring airborne precautions. Some factors and questions to consider when developing or reviewing a Respiratory Protection Plan include:
- Exposure determination: Similar to your Exposure Control Plan, the Respiratory Protection Plan must identify the persons or groups of persons at risk for exposure to respiratory hazards due to the specific nature of their assignment. Have these individuals been identified and fitted with respirators?
- Respirators and protective masks: Employers must have an adequate supply of NIOSH-approved respirators for employees in the event of an outbreak or extended exposure event. What type of respirators are available to employees who are unable to wear or use N95 masks (e.g. employees with beards, goatees)? Will the employer supply powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs)? These devices use a battery-powered blower to force the ambient atmosphere through air-purifying elements to the inlet covering, maintaining positive pressure in the facepiece.
- Medical evaluations: Have all employees who might use a respirator been provided with a confidential medical evaluation?
- Fit testing: Have all employees who might use a respirator been fit-tested for the respirator initially and annually?
- Maintenance and care of respirators: Are the respirators clean, sanitary and in good working order?
- Training and information: Are employees trained in why the respirator is necessary, the use of the respirator in emergency situations, and procedures for maintaining and storing a respirator? Are employees trained on the respiratory control plan on an annual basis?
- Program evaluation: Does your agency conduct evaluations of the respiratory protection program to identify deficiencies and make corrections as needed?
As with the Exposure Control Plan, it’s likely your state publishes additional guidance to help you develop a Respiratory Protection Plan, such as this guide from CAL OSHA.
Public Safety’s Role
Although coronavirus fear is widespread, we all can take practical steps to not only mitigate and minimize the risk of exposure to this disease but also to all infectious and communicable diseases. Public safety employers have statutory mandates to protect their employees and the public from these diseases.
This is also an opportunity for employers to be leaders in educating and training employees to allay fears with accurate information and good health practices. Developing and maintaining robust exposure control and developing respiratory protection plans are a start. Ensuring employees follow those plans may be one of the most practical ways for employers to help keep employees safe from infection and the spreading of infectious disease.
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