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Employers Urged to Stockpile Respirators To Combat Flu Pandemic
 

By J.J. Smith  5/23/2008
 

The federal government wants to help U.S. businesses stockpile respirators and facemasks in order to protect employees and reduce the impact of a pandemic flu outbreak.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) posted a Federal Register notice—Request for Comments on Proposed Guidance on Workplace Stockpiling of Respirators and Facemasks for Pandemic Influenza—on May 9, 2008, announcing the availability of the draft document, and that the agency will accept comments on the guidance through July 8, 2008.

Because an influenza pandemic could have a major effect on society and the global economy, including travel, trade, tourism, food, consumption, investment and financial markets, planning for pandemic influenza by business and industry is essential to minimize a pandemic’s impact, OSHA says. During a pandemic, employers will likely experience increased employee absences, changes in patterns of commerce and interrupted supply and delivery schedules, the agency says. By making contingency plans to combat a pandemic influenza outbreak, employers can play a key role in protecting employees’ health and safety as well as in limiting the impact of a pandemic on the economy and society, OSHA says.

In November 2005, the White House announced the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, which outlines the federal government’s approach to prepare for and respond to an influenza pandemic. To further assist in the national pandemic preparedness efforts, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) developed the proposed guidance on the stockpiling of respirators and facemasks in occupational settings.

The proposed guidance is designed to help private sector and government employers make decisions on the purchasing and stockpiling of respiratory protective devices. The document provides employers with recommendations and a methodology for calculating workplace stockpiling needs for respirators and facemasks in order to be prepared for an influenza pandemic, the agency says. It provides employers with information on the various types of respirators and their advantages, disadvantages and approximate costs. In addition, for employers who determine that they have employees at a medium or a high exposure risk, the proposed guidance has a methodology for determining how many respirators or facemasks an employee would have to stockpile based upon the assumption that an influenza pandemic will appear in two waves, each lasting up to 12 weeks, over an 18-month period.
While OSHA is interested in receiving comments on all aspects of the proposed guidance, the agency is particularly interested in comments on several areas:

  • Is the guidance clear and useful in helping employers determine if they should stockpile respirators and/or facemasks for their employees and the quantity of each device that should be stockpiled?
  • Are there any parts of the guidance that are not clear and, if so, how can they be clarified?
  • Do the underlying assumptions used to estimate stockpiling needs, as well as cost estimates, for various types of facemasks and respirators appear to be appropriate? If not, please explain why those estimates are inappropriate, as well as an alternative approach and the rationale for the alternative.
  • That companies that have already stockpiled respirators and/or facemasks share their underlying assumptions and methodology.
  • How can employers be encouraged to begin such stockpiling?

No matter how comments are delivered, the OSHA docket number, OSHA-2008-0005, designated for the proposed guidance must be included in the correspondence. Comments may be submitted at www.regulations.gov, which is the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. Comments can also be submitted through the U.S. Postal Service addressed to the OSHA Docket Office, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Room N-2625, 200 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20210. If comments are less than 10 pages—including attachments—they can be sent via facsimile to the docket office at (202) 693-1648.

J.J. Smith is manager of the SHRM Online Safety & Security Focus Area.

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