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New Virginia COVID-19 Safety Rules – Are They a Model for Other States?

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New Virginia COVID-19 Safety Rules – Are They a Model for Other States?

On July 15, Virginia became the first state in the nation to adopt statewide COVID-19 workplace safety standards. This means employers in the Commonwealth will soon be required by law to protect their workers from the coronavirus.

Many organizations in the United States currently direct their employees to practice social distancing, wear personal protective equipment, wash their hands often, sanitize shared surfaces frequently, and engage in other procedures to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Until now, these practices have been rooted in regulatory guidelines and recommendations rather than formal rules. In other words, no government authority has stepped in to make sure workers are following COVID-19 safety measures, or that those measures are consistent from workplace to workplace.

Virginia’s new emergency temporary standards, announced by Governor Ralph Northam, is a pivotal shift in rulemaking and enforcement. Under the legislation, all workers in Virginia must comply with the same safety practices—and employers are now liable for noncompliance.

The New Workplace Safety Requirements at a Glance

Virginia’s new standards are broad and sweeping, mandating workplace safety procedures such as the following:

  • Workers must practice social distancing.
  • Workers must wear face coverings.
  • Employers must provide access to hand washing or hand sanitizer.
  • High-contact surfaces must be sanitized frequently.
  • All employees must be notified within 24 hours if a co-worker tests positive for COVID-19.
  • Any employee who is “known or suspected” to be positive for COVID-19 cannot return to work for 10 days, or until that person receives two consecutive negative tests.

This is only a brief overview of what the law entails. Governor Northam’s announcement also mentions mandatory “infectious disease preparedness and response plans, record keeping, training, and hazard communications.”

The standards will be enforced by the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Program, with penalties for violations ranging from $13,000 to $130,000.

Questions and Uncertainties

In a break from conventional rulemaking, Virginia has decided to promulgate this new law at an accelerated pace and without public comment. As of this writing, the standards are set to become effective next week—the week of July 27—and last for 60 days (a period Virginia will likely extend further), but details beyond the basic facts outlined above are currently unavailable.

Moreover, the imprecise language of the Governor’s announcement raises several questions:

  • What constitutes “frequent” cleaning? Exactly how often do surfaces need to be sanitized?
  • Is a person’s “co-worker” defined by proximity? Does the 24-hour notification requirement apply only to individuals within the same department or who have had direct contact with each other, or is it company-wide?
  • Who “suspects” whether an employee is positive for COVID-19—a manager, a medical professional, another employee?

Keep in mind that the new law may change between now and its effective date. Expect to see comprehensive, finalized text, as well as templates and training guidance, sometime next week. We will provide another update here at that time.

Act Now to Protect Your Workforce and Bottom Line

Don’t wait until the week of the 27th to prepare your workforce. If you do business in Virginia, now is the time to implement and optimize COVID-19 safety procedures in your facilities.

Even if you don’t operate in Virginia, it’s a good idea to be aware of and get ahead of these regulations, as any state could announce equivalent—or more onerous—rules at any time.

KPA will help you ensure compliance with Virginia’s emergency standards and stay on top of any future regulatory concerns. Learn about our COVID-19 Safety Program.

If you have questions about Virginia’s new COVID-19 law, or need assistance with any workplace health and safety issue, please contact us.

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Mike Tanguay

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