Emergency Standards Require Mitigation of COVID-19 Risk in the Workplace

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 —

New emergency workplace safety standards to protect Virginia employees from COVID-19 and prevent and mitigate the virus’ spread are set to take effect as soon as they can be published in a Richmond newspaper, likely the week of July 27.
Virginia is the first state in the nation to adopt mandatory workplace safety regulations for the coronavirus pandemic.
The “Emergency Temporary Standard, Infectious Disease Prevention: SARS-CoV-2 Virus That Causes COVID-19” was crafted by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry after Gov. Ralph Northam in May directed the department to do so; it was adopted by the Safety and Health Codes Board July 15, after four lengthy meetings.
The emergency standard will remain in effect for six months or until the governor’s state of emergency expires, a permanent standard is adopted, or the board repeals it.
According to the rules, all Virginia employers among other requirements must:
Assess the workplace for hazards and tasks that potentially expose employees to the virus and classify those according to their risk level
Inform employees about how to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19
Develop policies for employees to report they are experiencing symptoms
Not permit employees suspected to be infected to come to work until cleared — teleworking is okay
Notify all employees within 24 hours if an employee tests positive
Ensure sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance
Keep infected employees home for 10 days after symptoms appear or until they test negative twice
Ensure employees observe physical distancing on the job and during breaks — or where that is not possible, ensure compliance with respiratory protection and personal protective equipment standards for the industry
Close or control access to common areas such as break rooms
Ensure compliance with applicable Virginia executive orders
Provide cleaning and sanitizing supplies to employees who interact with other people
Ensure cleaning and sanitizing of all common spaces including bathrooms at minimum at the end of each shift, and of all shared equipment, tools, workspaces, and vehicles prior to transfer from one employee to another
Ensure employees have easy, frequent access to soap and water and hand sanitizer
Where other controls do not provide enough protection or are not feasible, provide employees with personal protective equipment and ensure its proper use.
Additional requirements specific to jobs classified as “very high,” “high,” “medium,” or “lower” risk are detailed in the 35-page document.
The standard also protects from retaliation employees who raise concerns about infection control to an employer, other employees, a government agency or to the public through print, online, social, or any other media.
It also protects employees from discrimination or being fired for exercising rights under the safety and health provisions of the standard or for wearing personal protective equipment.
Nancy Stern, executive director of Eastern Shore Rural Health System, said she is “thrilled” with the emergency standard.
“These standards provide all employers a framework that prioritizes employee safety and wellbeing,” she said.
“(M)andating appropriate personal protective equipment, social distancing, handwashing, sanitation, infection control training, and response plans, along with communication to employees is not only the right thing to do for our employees but, in our case, for our patients,” Stern said.
She said many of the requirements in the standard already were “our standard of practice and an integral part of our infection control plan and our emergency preparedness plan.”
“It has been and continues to be the number one priority for ESRHS since the beginning of this pandemic. A healthy workforce is the foundation for a healthy community and supports our economic recovery,” Stern said.
A spokesperson for Riverside Health System said the health care system “is closely reviewing the new emergency temporary standard and applauds Virginia for being the first state to enact such measures.”
“At this time, we do not anticipate any major obstacles to meeting any requirements that may be beyond the guidance that health care systems such as Riverside already follow from the CDC and Virginia Department of Health,” said spokesman Neil Burns.
Health care services are among workplaces with jobs defined as high risk in the standard.
Poultry processing plants are among workplaces with jobs defined as medium risk.
Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods are the top two largest employers on the Eastern Shore, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.
They are followed, in order, by Accomack County Public Schools, Riverside Regional Medical Center, Accomack County, Northampton County Public Schools, and Eastern Shore Rural Health System.
Perdue spokesperson Diana Souder said the company already implemented the standard’s requirements for the medium risk level beginning in early March, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, “such as additional sanitization, enforcement of social distancing where possible, installation of temporary partitions where social distancing isn’t possible, temperature checks and mask wearing for everyone entering our buildings, and we added to these measures over time as we learned more and guidance from health experts evolved.”
The company also increased flexibility in attendance policies, instituted temporary pay raises, paid profit-sharing bonuses early, increased eligibility criteria to allow more employees to participate in the bonus, and paid annual pay increases early to offset the end of the temporary increase, Souder said.
The CDC toured Perdue facilities, including in Accomac, “and validated that our efforts to protect our associates are best-in-class and working,” she said.
“We continue to enforce these safety measures following strict guidance from the CDC and communicate with our associates daily, including translating and sharing information in their native languages and our companywide open-door communication policy. Despite the global disruptions caused by COVID-19, we have been able to continue safely running our operations; this is a reflection of the dedication of our associates,” Souder said.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Commission office likely falls under the standard’s lower-risk category.
Robie Marsh, executive director, is attending a Virginia Chamber of Commerce training on the new workplace safety standard next week and hopes to be able to offer guidance to Shore businesses soon.
Chamber and tourism staff currently are doing a combination of teleworking and in-person work to accomplish social distancing. Staff are required to wear masks any time they are outside their individual office, Marsh said.
Additional measures implemented at the chamber and tourism offices include periodic cleaning, mandatory handwashing throughout the day, self checks before staff come to work, confidential reporting, installation of social distancing barriers, and creation of employee-only areas, among others.
Del. Rob Bloxom, who represents the Shore in the House of Delegates and also is a business owner, said about the standard: “Most of the requirements in the document are practices responsible businesses put in place months ago. We did our due diligence and put into place practices to protect our employees and our customers. No employer wants their employees or their customers sick. They cannot, however, keep their employees or customers from engaging in risky behavior on their own time.”
Bloxom said his main issue with the standard “is the substantial record-keeping burden it places on small businesses that are already struggling to survive, coupled with the threat of six-figure fines if businesses are unable to comply.”
Virginia’s emergency workplace standard can be viewed here:

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