OSHA investigating death of Piedmont Henry nurse

Nurses frustrated by a lack of N95 masks and other protective equipment took part in a protest earlier this month organized by the National Nurses United union, held outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center where they work. One nurse working among sick and dying coronavirus patients said she had been using the same N95 mask for two weeks. Another held up a sign to passing cars that said, “Say no to 1 mask/week.” Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Nurses frustrated by a lack of N95 masks and other protective equipment took part in a protest earlier this month organized by the National Nurses United union, held outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center where they work. One nurse working among sick and dying coronavirus patients said she had been using the same N95 mask for two weeks. Another held up a sign to passing cars that said, “Say no to 1 mask/week.” Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Federal workplace-safety regulators are investigating the death of a nurse who may have contracted COVID-19 while treating patients at Piedmont Henry Hospital.

The investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is based on allegations that an unsafe work environment at the Stockbridge hospital exposed the employee to the coronavirus, the agency told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The complaint is among dozens that OSHA is looking into involving recent deaths of healthcare workers across the U.S.

Although it’s unclear how many of those cases are related to the pandemic, in recent months tensions have been mounting as hospitals have required front line healthcare workers to conserve and reuse scarce personal protective equipment, such as N95 respirator masks. That has left many working in fear that they or their families are being put in danger.

"Without testing or screening, we don't know who has it," Florence Uzuegbunam, an advanced practice registered nurse, said during a protest earlier this month outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center. "So to be sure that you're 100 percent protected, you need to have an N95 respirator for highest protection."

OSHA spokesman Mike D’Aquino told the AJC it had received more than 2,680 COVID-19 related complaints about workplace safety issues. Of those, more than 1,590 have been closed, while more than 100 federal inspections are open, he said.

Workplace safety experts told the AJC that most complaints from healthcare workers tend to focus on a failure by the employer to provide proper personal protective equipment. OSHA requires employers to provide that equipment, keep documented proof of conducting PPE training and “fit” test the equipment to ensure it protects employees from workplace hazards.

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The agency wouldn’t elaborate on specifics of the Piedmont Henry case, and little has been publicly released about the nurse. According to a report by Georgia Health News that quoted unnamed fellow employees, the nurse worked with cardiac patients and apparently became infected at work.

Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta spokesman John Manasso said in an email that it hasn’t been confirmed if she was infected or where.

“As a traveling nurse employed by a staffing agency, she may have worked at numerous healthcare facilities, including Piedmont Henry,” his email said. “According to her employer and as of April 17, we are not aware of whether a test for COVID was taken, nor are we aware of the results.

“Regardless of the circumstances, we are deeply saddened for the friends and families of both individuals during this difficult time,” Manasso said.

A statement from Piedmont Healthcare said the Henry County hospital’s PPE supplies “have remained stable and their use has remained in line with CDC guidelines throughout the pandemic, allowing Piedmont Henry’s front-line employees to remain safe in caring for patients with COVID-19. Ensuring a safe environment for our patients and employees is of the utmost concern to us at all times, but especially during this time.”

Since the start of the pandemic, tensions have mounted between frontline healthcare workers and their employers, as hospitals have ordered doctors and nurses to work around a deadly contagion while conserving personal protective equipment. Pictured here, a shout-out to frontline workers is expressed by a banner hanging from the Jackson Street Bridge, visible to westbound motorists on John Lewis Freedom Parkway. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Since the start of the pandemic, tensions have mounted between frontline healthcare workers and their employers, as hospitals have ordered doctors and nurses to work around a deadly contagion while conserving personal protective equipment. Pictured here, a shout-out to frontline workers is expressed by a banner hanging from the Jackson Street Bridge, visible to westbound motorists on John Lewis Freedom Parkway. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

At least three other Georgia healthcare workers are believed to have also died from COVID-19, according to the Georgia Nurses Association. OSHA has not opened investigations in those cases.

The agency wouldn't explain why those other tragedies, such as the death of a mammogram technician at Piedmont Newnan, haven't prompted investigations.

The technician, Diedre Wilkes, was found dead March 19 with her child in her Coweta County home, and the coroner said she tested positive for the coronavirus.

Manasso, of Piedmont, has said the mammogram technician did not work in a part of the hospital where coronavirus patients were being treated.

“We are not aware of any Piedmont employee whose cause of death had been determined to be from COVID,” Manasso said Tuesday. “In March, an employee passed away and despite what was reported in the media, our understanding from the GBI forensic pathologist was that a cause of death had not yet been determined.”

Richard Lamphier, a registered nurse and president of the Georgia Nurses Association, said the shortage of PPE has become a major source of stress for nurses battling the disease. Before the outbreak, nurses would typically switch N95s after each new patient, he said. Now some say they're being handed one surgical mask per day, or single N95s that they're expected to use for weeks.

“The entire world is asking for the same supplies,” Lamphier said. “The concerns are, do we have enough PPE? Are we using it to the best practice? And then, where is the next supply of PPEs coming from?”

In a survey of Nurses Association members completed last week, with 207 nurses participating, 44 percent said they did not feel safe and equipped to perform their duties under their facilities’ COVID-19 plans and procedures. The written explanations overwhelmingly described a lack of PPE.

“I have been reusing the same Level 3 mask and N-95 mask since the end of February,” one nurse wrote. “As of last week we have started checking out gowns. Also, the word of reusing gowns has been mentioned. Gowns, mask and N95 are not made for reusing.”

Workplace safety experts told the AJC that the complaints OSHA has received are just the beginning of a crisis that is likely to overwhelm the already understaffed federal agency.

“What’s scary right now is OSHA, at this particular moment, I imagine, is having some problems having to respond to everything that is happening,” said Adian Miller, an Atlanta attorney who represents employees in workplace negligence disputes. “I can’t imagine that they have the manpower to divert this crisis as it’s unfolding and go out and investigate.”

Adam Dillon, a workplace safety expert in North Carolina, said the dozens of investigations involving hospitals are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s fatality after fatality after fatality,’’ he said. “That’s a lot of employees dying at hospitals. And you’re going to see a lot more.”

Filing a complaint

Workers can file a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration if they believe they have been exposed to an unsafe workplace. Employees also can request that OSHA conduct inspections of their workplace. Workers can also phone 800-321-6742. The agency's staff will discuss complaints with workers and respond to any question.