This past spring, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released planning guidelines designed to help workplaces safely deal with COVID-19.
OSHA — the federal standard-bearer for workplace safety — offered this guidance in March, when the coronavirus was just beginning to wreak havoc here on United States soil. And the agency only provided recommendations, not requirements.
The federal government has yet to put forth any type of minimum standards regarding the assurance of safe conditions as employees return to the workplace, and there might well be no such regulations emerging from Washington, D.C. anytime soon. But just 100 or so miles outside the nation’s capital, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry recently made the Mother of States the first to adopt statewide coronavirus workplace safety rules.
The regulations obligate the state’s employers to assess the level of risk within their workplaces, establish notification requirements in the event of potential exposure and mandate the implementation of protocols for infected employees’ return to work.
With all quiet on the federal front, could the Virginia regulations also provide a template for other states hoping to ensure the safest possible work environment in the midst of COVID-19 and going forward?
Assess Risk and React Accordingly
The new Virginia rules, which are set to remain in effect into the new year, compel the state’s employers to review hazards and job duties within their workplaces and designate them as either very high, high, medium or low risk.
Very high exposure positions, for example, are those with considerable potential for employee exposure to known or suspected sources of the virus, such as laboratory samples.
Conversely, roles considered to be at lower risk of exposure include those that don’t require contact inside six feet with individuals known or suspected to be infected. Employees at lower risk have little contact with others, including the general public.
Some of the state’s mandates apply to Virginia employers with workers at all risk levels.
For example, employees or other individuals known or suspected to be infected with COVID-19 are prohibited from reporting to or remaining at the work site or a customer or client location until cleared for returning to work. Employers must also notify employees of potential workplace exposure within 24 hours of learning of exposure to a known case, while protecting the infected individual’s identity.
Employers with roles classified as being at medium, high or very high exposure risk must meet additional criteria.
For instance, companies with medium risk roles and with 11 or more employees, and those with high or very high-risk positions, must create and implement a written infectious disease preparedness and response plan within 30 days of the date the regulations took effect.
Companies that fail to comply with the state’s new standards face penalties ranging from just over $13,000 to more than $130,000.
Start of a State-Level Trend?
Since the arrival of COVID-19, many individual organizations have taken steps designed to ensure employee safety, says Alicia Scott-Wears, director of total rewards content at WorldatWork.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a variety of actions taken on an employer-to-employer basis to provide their workforces with the safety measures that allow for workers to return to work or continue to work with protection and reduced fears and anxiety in their work environment.”
But, with no federal regulatory rules in place, these measures weren’t consistent across companies, says Scott-Wears.
And, in the absence of nationwide regulations, we might begin to see more state governments to step in—as state leadership in Virginia has done—to create basic minimum coronavirus safety standards.
“Creating risk categories and requirements at each level based on probable exposure allows for a clearer and more standardized approach for employers to focus on impactful solutions that address their varied employee bases, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach or extreme variations depending on employer,” says Scott-Wears. “[This approach] gives employees a more stable expectation of their safety in the work environment."
About the Author
Mark McGraw is the managing editor of Workspan.