OSHA cites North Bergen nursing home

Alleges failure to protect employees from COVID-19

The Harborage long-term care facility in North Bergen

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Hackensack Meridian Health Residential Care Inc. on Sept. 11.

OSHA issued two serious citations and one other-than-serious violation for allegedly failing to protect employees from exposure to COVID-19 at the Harborage, Hackensack Meridian Health’s North Bergen facility.

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North Bergen’s three nursing homes sit at the epicenter of its COVID-19 outbreak. The Harborage has recorded approximately 25 deaths as of April 28. 

OSHA proposed a penalty of $28,070 for the violations at the Harborage.

‘Failing to protect employees’

Based on a coronavirus-related inspection, OSHA cited Hackensack Meridian Health for a serious violation for failure to provide respirators to resident-care employees for a period of time in March 2020. Employees were caring for residents who were exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus.

OSHA also cited the employer for failure to conduct respirator fit testing, effective training, and compliant medical evaluations, after the employer began providing respirators to the employees and requiring their use. OSHA cited one other-than-serious violation for the facility’s failure to establish a fit-test record for qualitative fit tests.

“Employers must take appropriate steps to protect the safety and health of their employees during the pandemic,” said OSHA Area Director Kris Hoffman. “OSHA will continue to field and respond to complaints and take steps needed to address unsafe workplaces, including vigorous enforcement action for all standards that apply to the coronavirus, as warranted.”

OSHA guidance includes social distancing and the use of physical barriers, face shields, and face coverings when employees are unable to physically distance at least six feet from each other.

OSHA advises that employers should provide safety and health information through training, visual aids, and other means to communicate important safety warnings in a language workers understand.

Union officials call for more safety protocols

The OSHA complaints were filed by a labor union on behalf of their workers at the facility.

Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) First Vice-President Barbara Rosen said in a statement that the action by OSHA is the first citation of its kind nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It confirms what we’ve known all along, based upon what healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic have been telling us during a highly infectious and deadly viral disease outbreak,” Rosen said. “OSHA’s investigation of our complaints at HMH Harborage found that healthcare workers at this facility (and our members at the adjacent HMH Palisades Medical Center) were exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19, that they were not fit-tested for personal protective equipment (PPE) and were not trained how to properly wear and store PPE.”

As a result of the conduct by Hackensack Meridian Health, healthcare workers, including HPAE members, were exposed to the virus, and became infected and sickened by the virus, according to Rosen. At least two HPAE members died.

“Far beyond the citations and the $28,070 fine that OSHA has levied against HMH for its abhorrent behavior at Harborage is the fact that we still need HMH to establish verifiable safety protocols for healthcare workers to work safely without getting infected, constructively engage with HPAE and its members on how to properly and safely navigate COVID-19 care of patients and the various intersecting tragedies and issues that continue to attend to this pandemic,” Rosen said.

OSHA investigation still open

HPAE has pending OSHA complaints at other Hackensack Meridian Health facilities, including at Palisades Medical Center and the Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

While OSHA has filed three citations against Hackensack Meridian Health, the investigation is still open.

Dr. Daniel Varga, Chief Physician Executive for Hackensack Meridian Health said in a statement: “This is an open investigation, and we are challenging several of the OSHA findings.”

“We vehemently oppose the union’s characterization of our approach to team member safety as ‘abhorrent’ or ‘callous,'” he said. “We believe that the safety standards that we had to adopt in this unprecedented global pandemic absolutely protected our team members.”

According to OSHA, the company has 15 business days from receipt of the citation and penalty to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.