Virginia regulators have voted in favor of enacting temporary safety and health measures to protect most private and public workers from the coronavirus. The rules are a first for the United States and could serve as a model for other states to ease the spread of COVID-19 as the federal government has failed repeatedly to tackle the pandemic in a consistent and uniform way.
The Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board approved the proposed rules on Wednesday, June 24, declaring the coronavirus to be a “grave danger” to workers that requires an emergency standard to combat. Regulators adjourned after the vote and agreed to hammer out the language in a later meeting.
According to Bloomberg Law, a few other states have enacted some coronavirus protections for workers, but the rules cover specific groups of workers, such as health care workers and agricultural workers. Virginia will be the first state to implement pandemic safety and health rules that protect most workers.
Virginia is one of the 22 states that has its own agency dedicated to occupational safety and health. Federal law permits states to legislate their own regulations as long as they meet or exceed the rules and standards set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
A doctor in charge
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has a qualified perspective on the issue. A pediatric physician, he issued an executive order for the rules on May 26, saying that they “must address personal protective equipment, sanitation, record-keeping of incidents, and hazard communication.”
The rules will stay in place for at least six months or until regulators enact a permanent rule, according to Bloomberg Law.
The new coronavirus protections categorize industries and occupations by risk of exposure to COVID-19, which has overtaken the U.S. in numbers that are shattering some of the worst-case projections issued by the Trump administration when the virus was relatively nascent.
The White House, the U.S. Department of Labor, and OSHA have refused to address the coronavirus risk to workers in any meaningful way. Lack of cohesive and straightforward information about the pandemic and mixed messages from the White House have only added confusion to the situation.
Assessing exposure risk
Under Virginia’s new rules, health care workers, such as doctors, nurses, emergency responders, and mortuary staff, would be classified as high-risk. Medium-risk workers would include workers in schools and education, restaurants, theaters, grocery stores, and meat-processing plants, to name a few. Low-risk businesses include those whose workers don’t typically work directly with the general public or could maintain a distance of six feet or more between themselves and others.
The rules also include provisions for personal protective equipment, coronavirus testing, disinfection of work areas, air circulation standards, and allowing sickened workers to remain at home without losing their job or other reprisal.
Although these new regulations will go a long way toward ensuring workplace safety, they will only be effective if employers follow them. Workers who see negligence in following safety protocols, or who are made to feel uncomfortable for calling out failures to follow policies may experience threats or other retaliation to encourage them to stay silent. But you don’t have to be muzzled. In fact, it is important not only for your safety, but that of your co-workers, to call out wrongdoing. If you think you have been a victim of workplace discrimination, retaliation, or a hostile workplace, or if you have been exposed to an unsafe workplace, it is important to seek the immediate advice of an employment lawyer. Contact Larry Golston, Lauren Miles or Leon Hampton, lawyers in our firm’s Consumer Fraud & Commercial Litigation Section.
Additional source: The Washington Post