The provision, passed by voice vote as an amendment to the TSA reauthorization bill, would allow TSA employees to wear equipment including face masks, surgical gloves and respirators during crises.
The move follows complaints from the National Treasury Employees Union, which said managers were stopping airport screeners and other TSA employees from wearing masks or respirators to protect themselves from the H1N1 virus -- commonly known as the swine flu -- in April and May.
"The justification seems to be that the airlines and transportation officials don't want to alarm the public," said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., sponsor of the amendment. "I just want to point out that when you travel around the globe, these are not large, evil-looking devices. These are very simple dust masks that can be used, and they look fairly common."
The Homeland Security Department issued a directive requiring employees to wear protective gear if they were in contact with people they believed were infected with the swine flu. But the order did not address situations in which contact with an infected person had not been established, sparking complaints from NTEU that it didn't go far enough, because airport and border screeners wouldn't know whether someone was infected until it was too late.
Lynch's amendment drew bipartisan support, including some Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia. "I think that this issue also kind of addresses a problem that we didn't talk about in our committee, which is the public relations concern that has sort of trumped good common sense and public health, and I think we should make this clear with your amendment," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.
The bill also would require the Homeland Security secretary to issue a written directive on protective gear to TSA employees, within 90 days of enactment.
The overall reauthorization bill passed 397-25. It is now awaiting Senate approval.
NTEU praised the passage of Lynch's amendment and said the policy should apply to all DHS employees. "Approval of the Lynch amendment is a key step in righting an ongoing wrong," NTEU President Colleen Kelley said.