Mission Hospital in Asheville is being inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after nurses filed a formal complaint alleging unsafe working conditions amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The OSHA complaint, filed Sept. 24 by National Nurses Organizing Committee Labor Representative Brian Walsh, details a number of issues related to the hospital’s COVID-19 safety protocols, including that COVID-19-positive patients have been left in hallways.
Nancy Lindell, spokesperson for Mission Health, HCA Healthcare North Carolina Division, said in a statement that OSHA visited the hospital recently, completing its survey in the same day, and that Mission expects it to find the hospital compliant.
“Mission Hospital takes OSHA policies very seriously,” she said in a statement. “Compliance with OSHA’s COVID Emergency Temporary Standard is anticipated in their report. We appreciate the dedication of all of our colleagues in following the OSHA guidance in our commitment to excellent patient care.”
Registered Nurse Amy Waters, who has spent 14 years of her 32-year career at Mission Hospital, said nurses need the proper tools to do their jobs.
“It’s hard to go to work and feel like you’re not valued and feel like you’re considered a replaceable piece of equipment and not a human being,” she said. “That hospital used to have a great reputation and people were proud to say they worked there and that’s unfortunately not the case at the moment.”
Waters said Mission has stopped screening staff or visitors as they enter the hospital and that it sometimes takes days to test patients for COVID-19, and when those tests come back positive, nurses aren’t notified of the exposure.
“While anyone can get the COVID virus anyplace outside of their workplace, our hospitals help to ensure a safe environment for all of our employees by complying with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and our infectious disease experts,” Lindell said.
In June, OSHA enacted Emergency Temporary Standards for health care settings requiring employers to develop and implement a COVID-19 plan, provide and ensure employees wear facemasks and implement other safety precautions like physical distancing and physical barriers in certain circumstances.
The standards also say “the employer must seek the input and involvement of non-managerial employees and their representatives, if any, in the hazard assessment and the development and implementation of the COVID-19 plan.”
When an employee is exposed to a COVID-19-positive patient, the employer must provide gloves, an isolation gown or protective clothing and eye protection to each employee, the standards say, and clean high-touch areas once a day, providing hand sanitizer and readily accessible hand washing facilities.
OSHA requires employees to be screened each day and shift, which can be done by employees self-monitoring, and if someone tests positive, to notify close contacts and require those employees to quarantine until they can return to work.
The complaint says nurses weren’t involved in creating the COVID-19 safety plan, that they aren’t being notified in the case of a close contact with a COVID-19-positive patient, visitor or staff member, that the hospital does not effectively screen patients, visitors and staff entering the hospital.
“Sometimes COVID patients are placed in hallways and are not isolated in non-covid areas of the hospital,” it reads, asking for an in-person inspection.
The complaint also says nurses aren’t being fit-tested for N95 masks annually, and Waters said nurses just received a new product called “non fit-tested” N95s.
Fit tests require nurses to try on different sizes of the mask while a hood is placed over their heads and a bitter-tasting mist sprayed inside. If the person can taste the mist, the fit isn’t snug enough and they need a different size, she said.
If they can’t find one that fits well enough, nurses must wear protective hoods, Waters said. Her last fit test was in June 2020.
She said that since the start of the pandemic, she feels Mission has slackened its COVID-19 protocols.
Mission employees who test positive for COVID-19 are quarantined for 10 days from testing and can return to work on the 11th day if they’re asymptomatic, Lindell said. Employees can’t return to work if they still have symptoms, and must be fever-free without the use of a fever reducer.
She said Mission complies with CDC guidance for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in its facilities, including universal masking for all colleagues, patients and visitors.
The hospital is allowing one visitor per patient, and no visitation on the COVID unit, Lindell said, and that Mission has ample PPE for its staff and masks available for visitors.
“Our colleagues are not required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, however, we are strongly encouraging vaccination as a critical step to protect individuals from the virus,” she said.
Lindell said Mission regularly evaluates its policies on the vaccine, masking and visitation, and will announce any changes as they occur.
“Something has got to change,” Waters said.
She said she speaks to nurses who cry on their way to and from work, from dreading going to work and because they’re emotionally drained and exhausted after work.
“They’re entrusted with our health,” Waters said. “It’s up to them to give us the tools we need to do our jobs, and that includes making sure patients and staff are tested for COVID to prevent any exposure that’s not necessary. … I hope OSHA will help us with this.”
Derek Lacey covers health care, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.