COVID-19, Personnel Safety, Regulatory Developments

Virginia Is First State to Adopt Emergency COVID-19 Standard

In a break with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Virginia became the first state to adopt an emergency temporary standard (ETS) for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Virginia’s COVID-19 ETS applies to every employer in the state, unlike California’s Airborne Transmissible Disease (ATD) standard, which only applies to correctional facilities, funeral homes and mortuaries, hospitals and other healthcare facilities, and public services.

Virginia state flag on a facemask

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COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 currently is widespread in most U.S. communities and considered a workplace hazard.

The ETS establishes requirements for employers to control, prevent, and mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 among employees. The ETS takes effect as soon as it is published in a Richmond, Virginia, newspaper, with the exception of the standard’s training requirements, which take effect 60 days after the rule’s effective date. The ETS expires within 6 months, upon expiration of the governor’s state of emergency rule, or when it’s repealed by the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board or superseded by a permanent standard.

Most employers in the state must develop infectious disease preparedness and response plans once the rule becomes effective.

The ETS contains provisions for exposure assessments and determinations, notification requirements, and employee access to exposure and medical records. Requirements for all employees and employers mirror some of the guidelines for businesses issued by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, common areas like break rooms and lunchrooms must be closed, or their access must be tightly controlled. Employers must ensure employees observe physical distancing protocols. Frequently touched surfaces must be cleaned and disinfected at least once at the end of each shift, using disinfecting chemicals and products listed in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) List N for use against SARS-CoV-2. Employees should wear cloth face coverings in situations when physical distances of 6 feet cannot be maintained.

The ETS contains more stringent requirements of “very high,” “high,” or “medium” exposure risks. “Very high” exposure risk means potential exposure to known or suspected sources of the SARS-CoV-2 virus during aerosol-generating procedures like patient intubation, collecting or handling laboratory samples, and performing autopsies. “High” exposure risk covers a full range of healthcare facilities and services, as well as emergency medical services and medical transport, and mortuaries.

“Medium” exposure risks cover most agriculture, construction, and general industry workplaces.

Those requirements include engineering controls like adequate ventilation in compliance with American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standards and placing hospitalized patients with known or suspected cases of SARS-CoV-2 in an airborne infection isolation room.

Employers must install physical barriers like clear plastic sneeze guards to aid in mitigating the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 transmission. The standard also incorporates CDC Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) guidelines by reference.

Administrative and work practices controls include screening employees before each work shift for signs and symptoms of COVID-19.

Employers must limit nonemployee access to their facilities and post signs requesting patients and family members to immediately report symptoms of respiratory illness on arrival at the healthcare facility and use disposable face coverings.

Employers must provide employees with job-specific education and training on preventing transmission of COVID-19, including initial and routine refresher training, as well as offer enhanced medical monitoring of employees during COVID-19 outbreaks.

In healthcare facilities, employers must provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol.

To limit density in a facility, employers are expected to offer, if feasible, telework options and staggered work shifts. Employers should implement physical distances of at least 6 feet between employees and between employees and others at the worksite. Employers also must establish personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protection programs that include medical evaluation, fit testing, and training.

Training under the ETS must cover requirements of the standard, signs and symptoms of COVID-19, infection control measures, and the employer’s preparedness and response plan.