Lawmakers Blast DHS Protective Mask Policy

By Matthew Harwood

The Department of Homeland Security was roundly criticized during a subcommittee hearing yesterday for not formalizing the use of protective masks for border control agents after swine flu spread into the United States from Mexico, reports The Washington Post.

In a few instances, supervisors at Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) banned the use of protective masks for CBP officers. Elaine C. Duke, undersecretary for management at DHS, told lawmakers that DHS' policy on protective masks was made by Secretary Janet Napolitano, basing her decision on recommendations from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies coordinating the response to swine flu. 

Members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee were not happy, opining that DHS was more concerned with public relations than the safety of its workforce.

“Madam, I’m sorry, but frankly this is an indictment of the system that they worry more about perceptions rather than allowing people to make their own decisions on their health,” [Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA)] said to Duke.

Union representatives provided the committee with testimonials from workers they said were denied the right to wear protective masks. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley, whose union represents CBP and TSA employees, said some of her members working along the U.S.-Mexico border could see their Mexican counterparts wearing protective masks.

“It is unacceptable and shocking that more than three weeks after the onset of the so called swine flu and despite repeated urging from NTEU and others, there is still no comprehensive guidance in place to protect the health of these frontline employees,” Kelley said.

T.J. Bonner, of the American Federation of Government Employees, criticized DHS' policy, saying the policy made it possible for public servants to be transmitters of deadly diseases.

For the  written statements and testimonies from yesterday's hearing, click here.


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