Regulators want to extend Virginia’s expiring pandemic workplace safety rules

Regulators want to extend Virginia’s expiring pandemic workplace safety rules
Brandon Meister prepares a Moscow Mule drink for a carry out order at Mellow Mushroom in Richmond's Carytown neighborhood on May 16, 2020. (Source: Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Virginia was the first state in the country to mandate emergency workplace precautions against COVID-19 this summer. Now, with the temporary rules set to expire, state officials are weighing whether to make them permanent.

The state’s Safety and Health Codes Board is scheduled to take up the issue during a meeting Tuesday, though officials are preparing for multiple days of discussions before making a final decision on the far-reaching standards, which govern social distancing, masks and an array of other pandemic-safety measures.

Industry leaders broadly oppose the extension while labor groups and state officials responsible for enforcing the rules say they should remain in place until the end of the pandemic.

“The department is still of the opinion that COVID-19 poses a danger to employees and employers and that a standard to replace the emergency temporary standard is necessary for now,” said Jay Withrow, a director at the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, during a meeting on the rules late last year.

He said the department has fielded nearly 10,000 workplace complaints since the pandemic began, most of which were resolved through informal investigations after employers voluntarily complied with rules surrounding masks, social distancing and sanitation.

The department opened 94 formal investigations last year, most of which involved employee deaths, hospitalizations or workplaces where informal inquiries didn’t yield voluntary compliance. Of those, 43 are still in progress and 26 resulted in violations and fines, according to statistics presented to members of the Safety and Health Codes Board.

The department has not responded to a request for information detailing those violations and the fines that were assessed, but numbers compiled by regulators show most of the inspections focused on the health care and manufacturing industries.

The permanent rules proposed by the Department of Labor and Industry are largely identical to the temporary rules that went into effect in July and revisions generally reflect changes to Centers for Disease Control guidance. If approved, the rules would then go to Gov. Ralph Northam, who initiated the temporary standard and celebrated its passage, for final review.

Broadly, the regulations mandate face coverings for employees in customer-facing positions or when social distancing isn’t possible, daily sanitization of common areas, easy access to handwashing facilities and hand sanitizer and notifications to employees within 24 hours if a coworker tests positive for the virus. They also set a timetable for when employees who are infected or suspected to be infected with the virus can return to work.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.