Virginia First in Nation to Adopt Workplace Safety Rules for COVID-19 Pandemic

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Felicia Matthews holds a sign during a rally held in Accomac Monday, April 27, 2020, to show support for poultry processing facility workers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

By Carol Vaughn —

Virginia is the first state in the nation to adopt emergency workplace safety rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the Department of Labor and Industry’s Safety and Health Codes Board adopted the emergency standard Wednesday.
The 14-member board met four times to hash out details of the standard before approving it.
The document details protections for Virginia workers — including mandating appropriate personal protective equipment, sanitation, social distancing, infectious disease preparedness and response plans, record keeping, training, and hazard communications in workplaces.
The action came in the absence of federal guidelines, according to a press release from Northam’s office.
“Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a living, especially during an ongoing global pandemic,” Northam said, adding, “In the face of federal inaction, Virginia has stepped up to protect workers from COVID-19, creating the nation’s first enforceable workplace safety requirements. Keeping Virginians safe at work is not only a critical part of stopping the spread of the virus, it’s key to our economic recovery and it’s the right thing to do.”
Northam in May directed the department to create enforceable regulations.
Guidelines given by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “were mere recommendations, meaning they were not required,” according to a press release from the Legal Aid Justice Center.
“By virtue of these new standards, workers will now benefit from a host of key protections that employers must implement,” the release went on to say.
The center, together with Virginia Organizing and Community Solidarity for Poultry Workers, petitioned the state in March to develop enforceable regulations in view of coronavirus outbreaks at several Virginia poultry and meat processing plants, including at Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods on the Eastern Shore, among other factors.
“This historic victory will ensure that workers’ health is protected and that businesses are part of the solution to curbing the spread of the virus. We commend Gov. Northam, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, and the board for being leaders on the right side of history in passing this emergency standard,” said Jason Yarashes, lead attorney and program coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center,
The temporary emergency standards go into effect as soon as they are published in a Richmond newspaper — a legal requirement — which staff said likely will be the week of July 27.
They will remain in effect for six months unless repealed and can be made permanent through a process defined in state law.
A public hearing will be held within the next six months before any permanent standard is adopted.
“The Commonwealth’s new emergency workplace safety standards are a powerful tool in our toolbox for keeping Virginia workers safe and protected throughout this pandemic,” said C. Ray Davenport, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.
“Many employers have already enacted these evidence-based practices, and we are committed to working collaboratively with those who have not to ensure they are in compliance with the new emergency temporary standard,” he said.
The emergency temporary standards, infectious disease preparedness and response plan templates, and training guidance will be posted on the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry website at doli.virginia.gov.
Workers who feel unsafe in their workplace can file a formal complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration at https://www.osha.gov/workers/file_complaint.html
“The emergency standard is a major step forward in protecting workers in Virginia, and the broader coalition of worker advocates looks forward to working with the state to enact permanent standards,” the release from the Legal Aid Justice Center said.

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