Legislators to highlight need for state action on COVID-19 workplace safety

The state of Alaska isn’t doing enough to set clear and understandable public health measures to protect workers, and legislators hope that meetings Wednesday will highlight measures that can be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.

The House Health and Social Services and State Affairs committees will be holding a joint hearing on Wednesday morning to review workplace safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The State Affairs Committee is chaired Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields has been critical of the state’s handling of COVID-19 in sate-owned office buildings, calling for improved measures and a statewide mask mandate.

“Inaction would be the best way to characterize it but there’s an opportunity to do more so we should seize that opportunity,” he said. “Inaction broadly speaking, but not everyone is equally responsible. I think the Department of Health and Social Services, who’ve overseen the Pioneer Homes, have done a good job so far and they have a frequent testing policy that makes a lot of sense and the Marine Highway has mandated masks which is a good thing.”

But he’s particularly critical of the Alaska Department of Labor, where he previously worked as a special assistant. He says the department has the power to issue workplace safety regulations that cover all state employees and help send a clear and consistent message about measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

In a letter from the Alaska Correctional Officers Association posted to the meeting’s documents, the union calls for additional measures to be taken in Alaska’s prisons.

“It is imperative that correctional officers and other first responders, who are risking their own lives and families’ lives be protected, which in turn protects all Alaskans,” explains the letter from ACOA Business Manager Brad Wilson, adding that it’s impossible to follow guidelines like social distancing inside the walls of a prison. “Correctional officers know they are exposing themselves and their families to this highly contagious virus. They desperately need the necessary personal protective equipment and additional resources in order to protect all Alaskans.”

Recent legislative hearings have highlighted evidence that indoor spaces, particularly indoor spaces with close contact or shared air systems, are high-risk for spreading the virus. A well-publicized study examined a restaurant where air conditioning determined who got sick and who didn’t as well as a call center in South Korea that also found a correlation between where people sat and who got sick.

Both the state and city of Anchorage have also both identified close indoor spaces like bars and restaurants high-risk for spreading the virus.

Fields said the response to the virus so far has been mixed, sending often confusing messages to state employees, businesses and the public that has hampered the response to the virus.

He said the meeting will highlight some of the practical responses that both the state and private businesses can use—such as improved filtration and access to fresh air—that can limit the spread of the airborne COVID-19 viruses particles.

“It’s the state’s role to provide a standard,” he said. “This hearing is a way of getting at how do we deal with that.”

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Wednesday. It can be seen live on the Alaska Legislature’s website: akleg.gov.

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