PRESS RELEASE

EPA COVID-19 Guidance Sows Employee Confusion   

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For Immediate Release:  Wednesday, April 22, 2020
Contact:  Kirsten Stade kstade@peer.org

Superfund Inspectors Unsure about PPE and Other Key Health Issues

Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is directing critical workers in its Superfund program and other toxic cleanup employees that have been exposed to the Coronavirus to remain in the field unless they feel ill or have a fever.  These and other recent EPA pandemic pointers for its workers raise more questions than they answer, according to complaints received by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The latest “Interim Health and Safety Guidelines Related to COVID19 for Conducting Superfund Site Work” was issued on April 21st to EPA Superfund and other staff involved with toxic cleanups. The guidelines are more specific than the previous guidance issued last week, but still lack clear direction about what protective gear will be provided, if any, and how employees will be kept safe. Some of this guidance is downright unhelpful, for example, at one point declaring –

“exposure to COVID-19 alone does not constitute a work-related injury entitling an employee to medical treatment under the FECA [Federal Employees’ Compensation Act workers’ compensation system]. The employee must be diagnosed with COVID-19 to potentially be afforded coverage.”

Yet, there is no provision made for testing employees or how an employee proves an infection is work-related.

“Staff who may have been exposed to COVID-19 should be quarantined for at least two weeks, even if they are not showing symptoms,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney. “Staff who must deploy to protect the public and the environment from further imminent harm deserve specific assurances and effective safeguards.”

Even as the number of EPA employees who have tested positive to COVID-19 continues to grow, the agency is grappling for a strategy.  The latest EPA guidelines cite new guidance just issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for what it calls “Critical Infrastructure Workers.”  However, EPA’s translation of this CDC guidance remains somewhat opaque on –

 

  • What sites to avoid:  The EPA guidelines suggest looking at “the prevalence for COVID-19 cases in the area(s) you are deploying to….” While every state is reporting cases they are not posting every area where hospitalized patients had originated;
  • Who should not go into the field:  The guidelines state employees should be “Current on required vaccinations” while conceding there is no vaccine for COVID-19.  They also direct staff to “Evaluate employees individual risk factors (e.g., older age; chronic medical conditions, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, immunocompromising conditions; pregnancy)” yet does not specify who should not deploy or account for individual vulnerability to serious sickness from the virus; and
  • Personal Protective Equipment. The guidelines stated that PPE should be “selected to address all hazards including COVID-19” but no details are given as to what particular equipment is needed or who will provide it.

“Employees want to know what PPE will be used and whether testing is available,” added Whitehouse, noting that the pandemic is still an evolving situation.  “Telling managers to exercise case-by-case decision-making without clear criteria is a formula for confusion.”

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Read EPA’s latest COVID19 Health and Safety Guidelines for Conducting Superfund Site Work  

See new CDC Guidance for “Critical Infrastructure Workers”

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