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Why Were Several Nurses Suspended for Not Wearing Masks?

By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest

The coronavirus pandemic has spawned a broad array of policy considerations as Americans get used to the “new normal.” Old and new policies have merged to create an intriguing set of guidelines that society is trying to understand.

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Among these guidelines are new policy considerations about the coronavirus called COVID-19 and the need for personal protective equipment (PPE). When hospitals and other healthcare facilities do not have enough PPE, where does this leave medical and public safety personnel who must protect themselves while trying to administer to their patients?

Nurses Suspended for Refusing to Work without Face Masks

TIME recently published an article about a group of nurses who were suspended when they refused to work without face masks. Certainly their refusal was understandable, especially in light of the requirement that emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics must follow to enter only when the “scene is safe.”

The nurses were later reinstated, but the ethical issues surrounding their refusal to work without PPE remain. Would these issues have emerged had COVID-19 not happened?

Scene Safety Is Paramount in Emergency Medicine 

Scene safety is an important, fundamental concept in emergency medicine. It protects first responders by stipulating that no one should attempt to help another individual unless the scene is safe. Obeying that rule prevents responders from becoming victims, too. First responders understand this concept, but it is more important for their leadership to support the rule and help keep their employees safe when they are rendering care.

Suspending the nurses was a breach of employee safety and fundamentally goes against the notion of scene safety. It also sends a message that an employee’s safety is not important.

Thus, it was wise for the hospital to reinstate the nurses who were then able to work with the correct protective equipment.

Personal Protective Equipment Shortages Remain

While there are still PPE shortages worldwide to deal with the coronavirus crisis, those in leadership positions need to think carefully about how they will use the personal protective equipment they have and manage it with their frontline staff. By doing so, they might prevent ethical and safety blunders and avoid managerial crises that would put them on the wrong side of the issue. When we think about policies regarding scene safety, we ultimately think about the people involved and how an improperly handled safety incident could affect their well-being, perhaps even their lives.

Managers Ultimately Need to Think about the Message They Send to Their Staff

The suspended nurses were acting according to their training. The hospital, however, tried to use them as a means of proving that the PPE shortages were real and that healthcare givers might not be able to treat their patients without the appropriate equipment.

Managers ultimately need to think about the message they send to their staff, because mistreated employees often wind up seeking employment elsewhere.

Allison G. S. Knox teaches in the fire science and emergency management departments at American Military University and American Public University. Focusing on emergency management and emergency medical services policy, she often writes and advocates about these issues. Allison serves as an Intermittent Emergency Management Specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services, as At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and as Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences. She is also chair of Pi Gamma Mu’s Leadership Development Program. Prior to teaching, Allison worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. She is an emergency medical technician and holds multiple graduate degrees.

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