Virginia Unveils Statewide Workplace Safety Rules in Absence of Federal Guidelines

July 16, 2020 by Reece Nations
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, with his wife Pam at his side, said at a news conference in the Executive Mansion.(Steve Earley/Virginian Pilot/TNS)

RICHMOND, Va. – Due to the lack of federal workplace guidelines in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday emergency occupational safety standards to be implemented statewide.

The rules, instituted via an executive order, mandate social distancing, sanitation and the use of personal protective equipment in addition to instituting record keeping, training, hazard communications and infectious disease preparedness and response plans. Employers must readily provide sanitation, certify that often-touched surfaces are cleaned regularly and provide face-coverings for “employees in customer-facing positions and when social distancing is not possible.” 

“Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a living, especially during an ongoing global pandemic,” Northam said in a statement. “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. Keeping Virginians safe at work is not only a critical part of stopping the spread of this virus, it’s key to our economic recovery and it’s the right thing to do.”

Similarly, face-coverings for all patrons age 10 or older are required when entering, exiting, traveling through or spending time inside places of business. Violation of the order is punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor, possibly resulting in a $2500 fine or up to a year in jail.

Exceptions while eating or drinking, exercising, or while communicating with a hearing-impaired individual were made under the order. Further exemptions apply if a person has health conditions that prohibit face covering, difficulty breathing, or if removing their face covering “is necessary to secure government or medical services.”

“As a top state for workforce development, it should be no surprise that Virginia is also the first in the nation to establish such a robust set of emergency workplace safety regulations,” Chief Workforce Development Advisor Megan Healy said in a statement.

“Our workers are our greatest asset, and I am confident that these temporary standards will provide Virginians with the peace of mind they need to return to work and fuel the Commonwealth’s economic recovery.”

Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry’s Safety and Health Codes Board approved the standards after Northam called for enforceable safety regulations in May. While the covering of one’s face and nose is required for employees of “essential retail businesses,” the order does not apply to non-retail employees, employers, subcontractors or other independent contractors.

In contrast, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed an order Wednesday that prohibited the state’s cities and counties from mandating its residents to wear face coverings in public places. Despite the order itself, Kemp has publicly encouraged residents and visitors to “wear cloth face coverings wherever and whenever practicable.”

“The Commonwealth’s new emergency workplace safety standards are a powerful tool in our toolbox for keeping Virginia workers safe and protected throughout this pandemic,” Virginia’s Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry C. Ray Davenport said in a statement. “Many employers have already enacted these evidence-based practices, and we are committed to working collaboratively with those who have not to ensure they are in compliance with the new emergency temporary standard.” 

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