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How officials are working to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace

Posted at 1:18 PM, Jun 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-25 13:18:49-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Virginia regulatory board took steps toward the creation of a set of emergency temporary standards aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace on Wednesday.

The Virginia Safety and Health Code Board, which is a part of the Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI), held a virtual meeting that lasted, with breaks, more than seven hours.

The Board was addressing a portion of Governor Ralph Northam's Executive Order 63 that directed DOLI to "promulgate emergency regulations and standards to control, prevent, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace."

At Wednesday's meeting, the Board cleared procedural hurdles to establish such standards, but did not take up the proposed rules themselves.

The Board voted that workplace exposure to COVID-19 constituted both a "grave danger" and "an emergency situation" to employees and that emergency temporary standards or regulations would be necessary to address the issue.

The "grave danger" and "emergency situation" designations were options presented to the Board by DOLI staff, each of which provided a different statute to adopt such standards/regulations. The Board then voted to proceed under the "grave danger" designation which would allow them to issue "emergency temporary standard pursuant to Va. Code §40.1-22(6a)" that can last for up to six months while a more permanent standard is developed.

As to the standards themselves, the draft proposal, as written, would apply to “every employer, employee, and place of employment in the Commonwealth of Virginia within the jurisdiction of the” Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) program.

Its application would depend on the exposure level risk to COVID-19 an employee faces while working, ranging from “very high” to “high” to “medium” to “lower”, with the acknowledgment that some workplaces could have varying degrees of risk (for example, in a healthcare setting, an employee intubating an known COVID-19 patient would be classified as “very high” risk, while someone doing administrative work away from others would be considered “lower” risk).

However, the proposal contains some requirements for all employers, regardless of risk level. These include employers: notifying employees within 24 hours if someone at the same workplace has tested positive for COVID-19, developing and implementing procedures for known or suspected COVID-19 cases to return to work, and establish and implement policies “to ensure that employees observe physical distancing while on the job and during paid breaks on the employer’s property.”

If passed, the standards would be enforceable through civil violations that could carry penalties of up to $13,047 for “serious and other-than-serious” violations and up to $130,463 for “willful and repeat” violations.

The Board decided to take up the draft standards and proposed amendments from Board members at a later meeting, tentatively scheduled for some time next week.