By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A union representing U.S. airport security screeners is urging the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to supply more effective masks to protect against the spread of the new coronavirus, union leadership told Reuters on Tuesday.
The union, the AFGE TSA Council 100, which represents about 45,000 transportation security officers at airports across the United States, sent an email on Tuesday morning to TSA Administrator David Pekoske calling on the agency to provide the masks to workers. The email has not been previously reported.
“Everything we do is for the safety of the passengers, but at the same time you have to safeguard yourself,” said union president Hydrick Thomas.
Pekoske rejected the request in an emailed reply later on Tuesday, according to union officials, saying the agency would continue to follow guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regarding workforce protection.
The call for more effective masks comes as the coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, prompting President Donald Trump’s administration to discuss emergency measures to limit the fallout to public health and the economy.
The union wants the transportation agency to provide a type of mask known as an N95 respirator, designed to protect the wearer from smaller pathogens such as coronavirus.
The security officers have been provided the option of wearing surgical masks, according to Thomas. But such masks are not designed to block very small particles, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
TSA spokesman James Gregory did not comment specifically on the request for N95 masks, but confirmed that the agency permits security officers to wear surgical masks on the job.
The spread of the coronavirus, which has now reached more than 110 countries and territories, has triggered a global shortage of N95 respirator masks.
Federal medical workers tasked with screening incoming passengers at U.S. airports for exposure to the coronavirus asked their supervisors last week to change official protocols and require stronger masks, Reuters reported on Saturday..
Following the report, the CDC issued new guidance that makes the N95 masks optional for those screeners.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; additional reporting by John Shiffman; editing by Ross Colvin, David Gregorio and Bill Berkrot)