Union Complains to Federal Watchdog Agency About Protective Equipment for Nurses

Union at Jersey Shore Medical Center alleges lack of adequate protective equipment; hospital denies any merit to the complaint
Credit: NJTV News
Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore Medical Center

The nurses’ union at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune claims lack of protective gowns pushed them to wear garbage bags — like some New York City nurses did — to shield against COVID-19.

Their union filed a complaint this month with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal safety watchdog, alleging staff, “… are provided one disposable gown daily and the gown does not last throughout the shift. Employees are unable to obtain additional gowns when needed.”

Supervisors allegedly told nurses they were burning through too many gowns, according to Deborah White, state president of the union, HPAE.

“If our members are not protected with gowns then the virus is all over their clothing,” she said.

Adam Witt, president of HPAE Local 5058, claims Jersey Shore recently fired him for being a whistleblower about safety lapses. It’s an accusation the hospital adamantly denies. The OSHA complaint also says the hospital won’t properly fit its nurses for N95 masks — the gold standard for virus protection, but only if there’s a proper fit with a close seal all the way around.

“Knowing that you can now be infected because your employer is not providing you with proper PPE makes the work environment 10 times as hard,” White said.

Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore Medical Center said in a statement that all its N95 masks “… must be successfully fit-checked. If a team member dons a respirator that doesn’t fit properly, then the team member will be offered an alternate respirator for use.”

The statement continues, saying the hospital is “… taking appropriate and proactive measures to ensure our team members are safe. We take each of the claims raised seriously and actively follow-up on those claims. We do not believe there’s any merit to the OSHA complaints.”

OSHA can take up to six months to investigate a case. But this isn’t the only situation where nurses have been complaining about personal protective equipment issues.

‘More people, more staff’

Veteran ICU nurse Pam Tavarone caught COVID-19. Personal protective equipment shortages at her hospital prompted her to devise her own gear. She’s still wearing it, she said, after returning to work at St. Mary’s General Hospital in Passaic two weeks ago.

“The night before work is difficult for sleeping because your day is going to be long, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it going to be a crazy day? Are you going to have enough staff? We’ve had a lot of nurses leave. We’ve also had some that are still out sick,” she said.

“The nurse-to-patient ratio, I mean, we’ve got to get that down. We’ve got to get more people, more staff,” said Douglas Placa, executive director of the JNESO labor union.

Taverone’s union boss said St. Mary’s also needs more personal protective equipment. She said staff gets Chinese-made KN95 masks approved by the federal Centers for Disease Control for use during the pandemic.

“I’m watching the news also and I’m seeing, ‘Oh, we have so many companies making PPE. We’re delivering millions of masks and gowns.’ But we’re seeing stuff brought in from China,” Taverone said. “Rather than saying, ‘This is good for now,’ we should be saying, ‘What can we do to fix it?’”

Taverone said her union has filed grievances, called public health authorities and OSHA. St. Mary’s did not respond to NJTV News’ request for comment. Tavarone said New Jersey needs to work harder at protecting its nurses, flattening the curve and getting ready for a second wave of the disease.

“Because when this hits, it’s going to be catastrophic and I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said.

This post appeared first on NJTV News.

Correction (May 27, 2020): An earlier version of this story included a photo of nurses wearing garbage bags at a New York City hospital in March. Those nurses are not affiliated with Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore Medical Center or any other New Jersey hospital mentioned in the article.