GETTING A BETTER READ: Temperature checks of transit workers, as well as their being provided with personal protective equipment that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority initially discouraged have become routine, but with more than 90 of the 131 coronavirus-related deaths within the agency being those employed in the city bus and subway divisions, Transport Workers Union Local 100 is working with the NYU School of Global Health to determine both the physical and mental impact of the pandemic on its members. The NYU professor who is the lead researcher for the study said, 'We need to address this important gap in our knowledge about occupational exposure to coronavirus and use these findings to determine what additional protective measures are needed going forward.'

Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the NYU School of Global Public Health have launched a series of studies into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical and mental health of city transit workers.

More than 90 of the 131 Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees who died from the coronavirus were members of Local 100, which represents 40,000 people at the agency. The last COVID-linked death occurred June 2.

Thousands More Had It

Since the public-health emergency was declared in March by Governor Cuomo, thousands of MTA workers were sidelined by the virus, which medical experts say can have long-term health complications.

According to the MTA, 704 workers are still under quarantine, with 4,108 positive cases reported, while 10,207 employees have returned to work.

"This will be the first time outside public-health experts gather information from transit workers about their experiences during the pandemic and put the MTA's actions under the microscope," Local 100 President Tony Utano said. "We can't bring back our fallen heroes. But we can keep working to improve safety on the job, and that's what this is all about."

According to the union it has been consulting with experts from the NYU School of Global Public Health throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

"Our research aims to identify and better understand the individual and workplace factors that put this essential workforce at risk for COVID-19, in an effort to protect their health and well-being," said Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at NYU and the project's lead researcher. "We need to address this important gap in our knowledge about occupational exposure to coronavirus and use these findings to determine what additional protective measures are needed going forward."

MTA: They're Heroes

"MTA workers are the heroes moving heroes of this pandemic and there's nothing more important to us than the health and safety of our colleagues," the agency replied when asked about the health study. 

The project will start with a pilot consisting of virtual focus groups, interviews, and an anonymous survey of 200 transit workers.

According to the statement announcing the study "researchers will evaluate the risks transit workers faced on the job during the first months of the pandemic, and whether the actions the MTA took to protect its workforce--use of masks, additional cleaning and disinfecting, employee health screenings, and social distancing--came soon enough and were effective."

In addition, the research study will investigate the role of other risk factors for workers, such as pre-existing health conditions, age, and race and ethnicity, as well as how working through the pandemic has affected their mental health.

"It's extremely important that NYU is partnering with TWU Local 100 and its members in undertaking this critical research," AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez said in a statement. "Thousands of these essential workers were exposed to the virus, and, as we saw after 9/11, some of the health effects experienced by survivors may have long-term consequences."

'They Deserve to Know'

He added that "workers deserve to know if more could have been done to protect them, and what more can be done going forward to protect them and transit workers on the front lines across our nation."

Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the advocacy group the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said, "This study will help us better understand the factors involved in workers getting sick and how we can do better in the future."

Gary Smiley, the 9/11 World Trade Center ombudsman for District Council 37's EMS Local 2507, said the study could improve health outcomes for all essential workers and first-responders who have had to work throughout the COVID crisis.

"As we have learned from the World Trade Center exposure of thousands of first-responders, it was only through constant studies that illnesses were investigated, treatment modalities were formulated and future treatments and monitoring were all established," he said. "With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have already seen numerous first-responders and essential workers recover, only to have severe and long-term health effects."

According to Joel Kupferman, an attorney with the Environmental Justice Initiative, it's the "impartiality of the NYU study which is most welcomed."

"This is especially true when put in the context of what we learned from what happened in the aftermath of the WTC 9/11 disaster, when many of the so-called health studies served to actually limit liability of the city, state, and Federal governments and private employers," he said during a phone interview. "Again, we face a similar situation of under-reporting of illnesses, under-coordination of health agencies and providers, under-provision of appropriate personal protective equipment and a lack of accountability of decision-makers."

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