Virginia officials this week passed temporary new workplace safety rules designed to protect employees from the coronavirus, becoming the first state to adopt such measures.
The Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board voted to approve rules for businesses that include social distancing requirements, notifications for employees when a co-worker has tested positive for the virus and timelines for when employees who recover from the virus can return to work.
“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,” said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat.
Business groups said the new rules were an overreach that will add unfair burdens on businesses already struggling with the virus’s economic fallout.
“Perhaps some will feel pleased Virginia is the first to impose a state-wide pandemic workplace mandate promoted by labor groups but ignoring the harm it will cause the state’s businesses is shortsighted,” Virginia Retail Federation lobbyist Jodi Roth said in a statement.
Labor groups hailed the new rules as crucial to worker safety.
“Virginia became the first state in the nation to issue a strong, science-driven standard to protect workers from COVID-19. I can’t quite describe how HUGE of an AMAZING win this is,” Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays said in an email to her members.
The new rules, which are set to go into effect in coming days, require regular cleanings of high-contact surfaces and mandate that all businesses impose social distancing measures. Masks are required for employees who interact with customers and when social distancing measures can’t be maintained.
And employers must provide easy access to hand sanitizer or a hand washing station.
An employer has 24 hours to notify workers when an employee tests positive for the virus. Workers who test positive or are suspected to be positive for the virus cannot return to work for 10 days or until they receive two consecutive negative tests.
The new rules come amid a federal fight over workplace safety mandates as Congress gears up for a debate on a new COVID-19 relief package.
Democrats and advocacy groups have accused the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of being largely invisible during the pandemic and failing to protect workers at meatpacking plants, health care facilities and other high-risk sites. Instead of an emergency standard for U.S. workplaces, the agency has relied on voluntary guidance that recommends companies take various steps to erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations.
The House Democrats’ bill mandates an emergency workplace standard. It’s unclear if such a mandate will be in the final package, the details of which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said will begin to roll out next week.
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