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OSHA Is Asked to Impose Limits on Work Hours for Medical Interns and Residents

  • April 6, 2001

A petition filed by the Committee of Interns and Residents, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union that represents more than 11,000 interns and residents, and the American Medical Student Association, which represents more than 30,000 physicians in-training has asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to impose a limit on the number of hours medical residents must work. They allege, among other things, that there is no national work-hour limit for medical residents. Currently, New York is the only state that has regulations limiting the hours of work for interns and residents.

Since physicians-in-training sometimes are required to work from 60 to 130 hours a week with only one day off, the petition claims they are at increased risk of automobile accidents, depression, and pregnancy complications. Moreover, the petition claims the long hours pose a risk for the patients the residents are treating.

The petition seeks standards similar in some respects to those in place in New York, including limiting the number of hours worked in a week to 80, limiting the number of hours worked in one shift to 24, limiting on-call shifts to every third night, requiring a minimum of 10 hours off between shifts, requiring at least one 24-hour period of off-duty time per week, and limiting the consecutive on-duty hours for emergency medicine residents to 12. The petition asks for frequent unannounced OSHA inspections, public inspection of resident schedules, and a whistleblower procedure for reporting violations, as well as fines for violators.

Invoking the processes of a government agency like OSHA is a tactic unions have been using to avoid the rigors and uncertainties of representation petitions and collective bargaining. The health care industry can expect to continue to see unions circumventing the traditional Labor Board routes to gain access to employees and to put pressure on employers. Another similar tactic is to file a complaint with the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Administration for allegations concerning pay practices, or a complaint to OSHA that the facility is in violation of other safety standards, such as blood borne pathogens.

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