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Interview with NIOSH Director John Howard on COVID-19 and Workplace Safety

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on June 18, 2020 at 12:58 PM

On June 2nd, Michael Taylor, the host of the Workplace Safety Review Podcast and chair of Greenberg Traurig’s OSHA Group, sat down with John Howard, the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Their focus was on a topic that’s familiar for many workers, EHS teams, and most ordinary people: the coronavirus pandemic.

Howard offers a unique perspective as the director of NIOSH, one of the chief regulators of the coronavirus response. They covered many topics, with a special focus on NIOSH’s evolving role in the crisis, its changing safety guidelines in response to the pandemic, and how to plan for workplace safety moving forward. Here’s a closer look at some of that conversation.

The Role of NIOSH

In Howard’s words, “Our role is to ensure that workers who are responding to these large pandemics or epidemics or outbreaks or disasters, like the Deepwater Horizon [disaster], are well-protected in their response work.”

In this respect, NIOSH serves as a complementary agency to its parent agency, the Centers for Disease Control, as well as its counterparts in the Department of Labor, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

As Howard notes, NIOSH’s unique role overlaps with other agencies like OSHA in relation to niche issues. One of NIOSH’s foremost concerns is personal protective equipment (PPE) issues, such as respirators. “NIOSH has responsibility in its National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh to test respirators. So in the current coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot of work in that area,” Howard said.

NIOSH Guidance Materials

Guidance is need-based. In the early days, as Howard notes, the needs were, “What is this? Who is at risk? How does a workplace respond to these issues?” Now, as more workplaces reopen, that has shifted to focus more on safe reopening–and providing workplaces with the tools and guidance necessary to do so.

In the early days, NIOSH’s primary concern was essential workers, especially with regards to healthcare, since these were the only workers still going to work in person. Healthcare workers in particular face an unusually high degree of risk because of increased exposure, limited personal protective equipment, and the sheer volume of patients coming in who need coronavirus treatment.

As such, NIOSH’s guidance originally focused on the needs of healthcare workers, encouraging all non-essential workers to stay safe at home. Essential workers, meanwhile, were offered guidance on the PPE they would need to remain safe and how to use that equipment successfully.

Now, though, as the tenor of the pandemic has shifted, NIOSH’s guidance resources have expanded to encompass more industries. It still focuses heavily on essential employees, such as healthcare workers, transit workers, and food processing workers. However, it also offers guidance for businesses to reopen.

Stay Up-to-Date on the Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged everyone to go above and beyond the call of duty, and NIOSH is no exception. After all, when it comes to the workers responsible for keeping the larger public’s lives on track, we need those workers to stay safe.

If you and your team are looking for more coronavirus safety resources to share, make sure to check out our blog for more great tips, like this post on basic COVID-19 safety tips for everyone.

Topics: OSHA, Workplace Health and Safety, Risk Management, Compliance, EHS Management, Safety Management, Safety Culture, Human Resources, Coronavirus

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