AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. is working with agencies to ensure appropriate safeguards are in place.

AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. is working with agencies to ensure appropriate safeguards are in place. Flickr user AFGE

Union Urges Protection for Federal Workers at Possible Risk for Ebola Exposure

TSA chief assures employees that current safety precautions in place are sufficient.

A federal employee union is urging agencies to “take all necessary measures” to protect government employees working at the country’s ports of entry from possible exposure to the Ebola virus.

American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. said union members at agencies including the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection have “expressed concerns about their risk of exposure.” Cox said the union would continue working with management at those agencies “to ensure all appropriate precautions are in place, and to ensure that our officers receive the best prevention training and personal protective equipment available.”

So far, there has been only one case of Ebola infection diagnosed in the United States. Thomas Eric Duncan died in Dallas on Oct. 8 from the virus, eight days after being diagnosed. He had recently been in Liberia where there is an outbreak of the disease.

Five airports in the United States – John F. Kennedy in New York, Newark in New Jersey, O’Hare in Chicago, Washington Dulles and Hartsfield in Atlanta – will screen passengers arriving here from three Ebola-affected countries in West Africa. Those airports handle 94 percent of the travelers coming from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. JFK Airport will begin screening passengers on Oct. 11 by asking them questions, performing temperature checks and collecting travelers’ contact information. The other airports will implement the new procedures next week.

CBP employees will perform the checks. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for information about protective equipment for employees. CBP, which includes the Border Patrol, provides security and facilitation operations at 328 ports of entry throughout the United States.

On Thursday, TSA Administrator John Pistole sent an email to employees on the enhanced screening of passengers from West Africa, saying the extra measures are “not related to aviation security and should not affect the work you do every day.”

Pistole also told employees that current safety precautions in place were enough to protect workers. “Proper hand washing, use of nitrile gloves and routine wiping down of surfaces with disinfectant per current protocols is sufficient to protect TSOs [transportation security officers] while on duty.”

Health officials say that Ebola cannot be spread through casual contact -- only through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. Ebola is only contagious if the infected person is experiencing active symptoms. Symptoms include fever, severe headaches, vomiting and muscle pain.

The Office of Personnel Management issued guidance in 2013 during flu season reminding agencies of available workplace flexibilities, including telework, to reduce infection by encouraging sick employees to stay home. The agency said it is not issuing guidance at this time specifically related to Ebola.

For more information on workplace flexibilities that would allow federal agencies to operate in the event of a pandemic, click here.

(Image via Flickr user AFGE)