Comments of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, AFL-CIO.CLC (USW)
16 VAC 25-220 Proposed Permanent Standard – Infectious Disease Prevention: SARS-CoV-2 Virus That Causes COVID-19
September 25, 2020
These comments are submitted on behalf of the members of the USW. We commend Governor Ralph Northam for his order and we thank the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry (VDLI) for their hard work on the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) as well as the opportunity to comment on the proposed permanent standard. The ETS is a solid standard. We strongly support it becoming a permanent standard for all workers – no exceptions, and offer our suggestions for improvement.
COVID-19 will not end anytime soon. As winter approaches, so does the cold and flu season. People will be moving indoors, ventilation systems may not be adequate, and windows and doors are being closed. We expect an uptick in cases or perhaps a second wave with increased airborne transmission of viral aerosol. Isolation and quarantine of those exposed has and will be vitally important. Virginia’s workers need robust protections against COVID-19, without permanent protections they will be at risk. Workplaces have and continue to have outbreaks occurring in different industries and sectors, including USW represented workplaces. https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/coronavirus/covid-19-in-virginia-outbreaks/
A strong permanent standard will safely get Virginia’s economy moving again. Employers and workers will benefit by having a permanent standard for future infectious diseases that will save lives and prevent the spread. The VDLI and Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) Program has a longstanding history of helping employers with compliance and enforcement discretion with employers who are making good faith efforts.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published improved guidance on their webpage only to have it taken down on September 21. The CDC reversed itself and claimed the guidelines it posted on coronavirus airborne transmission were wrong. Changes such as this in the CDC’s guidelines appear to be about politics and corporate influence rather than science. The CDC references in the standard must be removed or keep what is in place in the ETS. Having one agency and authority to work with is good for both employers and workers – VDLI can better handle that. This also eliminates any political interference. Standard requirements do not change with no notice as CDC recommendations have been doing. The CDC exceptions makes it confusing and is impractical for employers - it needs removed.
The USW believes the standard is effective, but only if employers comply and implement the protections. The standard is based off scientific information, long-standing occupational health and safety practices, and recommendations making it most effective. The protections are important for controlling airborne hazards, which SARS-CoV-2 clearly is. Respiratory protection is clearly defined and required for workers who are deemed at risk. Also, face coverings are clearly defined and required according to previous Virginia mandates. More importantly in the hierarchy of controls, ventilation requirements are in line with industry standards per the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). This helps control the spread of droplet and aerosol transmission. The standard should continue to be a programmatic standard. Instead of it being overly specific and prescriptive, employers are required to implement their own program that fits their workplace using scientific-based and longstanding workplace hazard control practices. The engineering, administrative and work practice controls highlight the importance of key components for all at-risk workers by using risk assessments, plans, training, and more. Additionally, the key components are based off current OSHA standards and familiar to employers, workers and employee representatives. References on the return to work requirements are solid and align with current science.
As previously mentioned, the CDC exceptions need removed to eliminate confusion and it is impractical for employers.
SARS-CoV-2 is clearly an airborne hazard and the hierarchy of controls must be applied as the six-foot rule is not an effective control for airborne transmission of viral aerosol. Airborne aerosol transmission involves viral particles that can float in the air for long periods of time over distances well beyond six feet. Ventilation, reduced persons and time in spaces, and other controls must be combined with distancing.
Strengthen the involvement of workers and their representatives’ involvement in the Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan. The language is good, but it happens less often in practice. Active safety committee members have proven to be a valuable asset for employers to achieve compliance, and most importantly, protect workers. USW safety reps also conduct regular assessments to proactively identify and rectify problems with the employer. At one USW represented workplace, the safety committee plays a key role in designing, deploying and maintaining 48 sanitizing stations located strategically throughout the workplace. Workers and their representatives’ participation is key for an employer to maintain safe workplaces. VOSH should ensure their educational materials and enforcement efforts bring attention to this fundamental element.
Medical removal for known infections, exposures, or when recommended by a medical or public health professional, with removal protections is needed. Employers must maintain the employee's base earnings, seniority, and other rights and benefits that existed at the time of removal until cleared for return to work.
Case reporting requirements – a case management system is needed on what employers are to do when an employer has a case and the follow-up steps needed.
In conclusion, a permanent standard is needed to protect all workers, as COVID is not going away and will help protect all workers from future pandemics. The ETS is a strong, comprehensive standard that sets clear requirements based off longstanding practices and current science and should be made permanent. We strongly encourage Virginia to move forward with the permanent standard rulemaking with speed in order to ensure all workers are protected from COVID permanently. All VOSH standards protect the health and safety of Virginia’s workers. This one goes further. Other hazards can cause families to mourn and communities to suffer economically. But the actual injury does not spread beyond the injured worker. If a construction worker is injured in a fall, his/her family does not face an increased risk of falls. If a chemical worker contracts leukemia from benzene exposure, he/she will not infect others in his community with cancer. COVID-19 is different. Infections acquired at work can spread far beyond the workplace, as we have seen with nursing homes and meatpacking plants. A permanent standard will make all Virginians safer. We urge the Commonwealth to adopt a permanent standard without delay.
Assistant Director of Health, Safety and Environment