Situation: The recent COVID-19 pandemic has created crisis level shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential supplies. Across the country many healthcare institutions are disciplining nurses for speaking out to media outlets concerning the lack of needed equipment that is putting their health and the health of the patients they serve in jeopardy.
Background: 4113.52 of the Ohio Revised Code provides whistleblower protections for an employee to report employer violations believed to be “a criminal offense that is likely to cause an imminent risk of physical harm to persons or a hazard to public health or safety”. The statute asks that the employee verbally notify the supervisor or other responsible officer of the employer. Subsequently, the employee must file a written report that provides sufficient detail to identify and describe the violation. If the employer takes no effort to correct the violation within twenty-four hours, the employee should submit a written report with the prosecuting authority of a county or municipal corporation, with a peace officer, or with any other public official or agency.
There are multiple obstacles with the current whistleblower laws, especially during a time of state crisis. In regard to the current pandemic, that lack of PPE and unsafe working conditions may not be considered a criminal offense in court, however, nurses and healthcare workers would argue that unsafe working conditions during a pandemic provides imminent risk of physical harm to persons and is certainly a hazard to public health and safety. While some nurses can complete Assignment Despite Objection (ADO) forms to document unsafe working conditions, a majority of facilities do not offer this process of documentation. Furthermore, the current statute requires a nurse to first report what is presumed to be unsafe working conditions to their own employer. Not only are nurses afraid to report working conditions to their own employers, but the current process in place by the Ohio statute is cumbersome and bureaucratic.
Assessment: Nearly 20% of Ohio’s COVID-19 cases are health care workers. This data suggests that the significant lack of PPE and improper re-use practices going on in our health care facilities is contributing to this rising number. Employers have the responsibility to create, maintain, and provide practice environments that help meet the health care needs of the community within a system that protects all employees, patients, volunteers, and visitors. This should include the provision of sufficient, appropriate PPE, immunizations, testing, physical security and operational protocols.
Because appropriate PPE is not being provided, nurses are speaking up. The retaliation against nurses for speaking out regarding unsafe working conditions is abhorrent. Nurses are advocates for both patients and the profession, owing the same duty to themselves as they do to each other per the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements (2015) *Nurses must make a moral choice between how much care they can provide to others while also taking care of themselves and their families. The idea that they should suffer consequences for demanding better treatment for themselves, their fellow nurses, and other health care colleagues is appalling. As the voice of registered nurses in Ohio, the Ohio Nurses Association is obligated to bring light to this issue. We are increasing our advocacy efforts to demand additional whistleblower protections that are efficient and fluid for all nurses as they continue to care for our state’s patients during this global pandemic.
• ONA will advocate for revisions to Ohio’s current whistleblower laws that include procedures that are efficient and fluid to deal with crisis management.
• ONA calls upon the Governor and the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) to create a whistleblower hotline that allows healthcare workers to report instances of unsafe working conditions, without fear of retaliation from employers.
• ONA will encourage nurses to report unsafe conditions to local health departments and the Ohio Attorney General hotline at 1-800-282-0515.
• ONA will support and encourage nurses to speak to hospital administration and to document the working conditions, including lack of proper personal protection (PPE) using Assignment Despite Objection forms (if applicable).
• ONA will educate the public about the impact this pandemic is having on our healthcare workers by working with ODH to mandate healthcare facilities reporting of healthcare workers who:
o Test positive for coronavirus
o Are hospitalized due to coronavirus
o Have died due to coronavirus
*Provision 2 of the Code for Nurses with Interpretive Statements (2015) states “the nurse’s primary commitment is to the patient.” Provision 5 reflects that the nurse owes the same duty to self as others.
View the ANA Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements
OSHA resources on filing a complaint
The materials available on this web page are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice.