Virginia’s New COVID-19 Standard: A Harbinger of Things to Come?

When essential workers reported for duty in the earliest weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, many argued their employers were ill-prepared to keep them safe on the job. Many businesses lacked a clear strategy to prevent virus transmission.  Health screening protocols weren’t in place. Supplies of critical personal protective equipment were low with few replacements available. And yet for many, it felt as if concerns about workplace safety seemed to fall on deaf ears. 

Records indicate that the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has received nearly 6,000 complaints from U.S. workers regarding COVID-19 protections since March 2020. While OSHA reports to have investigated the majority of those complaints, to date only a single business has been cited for violations of workplace safety laws. 

It’s no surprise that as states ponder plans to further re-open schools and businesses, there are renewed calls for a national COVID-19 Compliance standard: one that not only clearly outlines the things employers must do to create and maintain a safe workplace, but one with enough “teeth” to hold those businesses accountable who fail to live up to their obligations under the law.

But it appears that one state was tired of waiting. On July 15, 2020, the Virginia Department of Labor approved its new Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19 (16-VAC-25-220), the first standard of its kind in the U.S. And now many workplace safety experts are openly wondering whether other states will soon follow suit and develop similar enforceable requirements in their jurisdictions.

In light of this possibility, we thought it was worth taking a quick look at this new standard, to both understand its requirements and explore how EHSQ software might help businesses comply. 

How EHSQ Software Can Help You Ensure COVID-19 Compliance

Create an Effective COVID-19 Pandemic Response Plan

Any effective pandemic response requires a high degree of coordination and communication amongst multiple stakeholders. It’s not surprising that the Virginia standard requires employers to create an Infectious Disease Preparedness Plan detailing specifically how infection risks will be identified, evaluated and adequately controlled in the workplace. And the foundation of any effective plan begins with accurately assessing each worker’s level of exposure risk, considering their job tasks, work environment and degree of interaction with others

A key benefit of most EHSQ software solutions is their ability to offer numerous options to easily create, revise and share risk assessments and job hazard analyses (JHA). It’s important to remember that as the pandemic evolves, and business processes and worker roles change, organizations will need tools to allow risk assessments to be revised quickly and shared with workers wherever they are in a timely manner. Digital platforms provide employers with much-needed flexibility to update risk assessments in only a few clicks, while enabling those changes to be tracked for auditing purposes. And for solutions offering mobile apps, workers can easily access these risk assessments directly from their mobile device directly where they work, improving timely access to the information they need to plan and execute their tasks safely. 

Establish COVID-19 Policies and Procedures

One of the first steps to reducing the risk of at-work outbreaks is to identify those employees who were or may have been exposed to COVID-19 before they enter the building. Even once employees are back on the job, businesses need to be able to promptly detect and respond to suspected cases before the virus has the opportunity to spread further. To that end, the Virginia standard sets some very clear expectations where employers must establish policies and procedures to control the return of employees to work using either a symptom-based or a test-based strategy. 

Screening people before they walk through the door isn’t without its difficulties. On-site health screening programs are resource-intensive, requiring a high degree of coordination, equipment, and training. Workers waiting in long line-ups can slow shift change-over – impacting productivity, not to mention potentially expose workers to infected colleagues.

Many COVID-19 software solutions, however, can reduce these negative effects with no-risk, no-contact health screening. In this respect, workers complete customized health screening surveys from their mobile device before arriving at the workplace. Survey responses are immediately validated, with workers receiving real-time, automated notifications telling them whether they’re cleared to work or advised to quarantine. Similar notifications can be sent to supervisors, so they immediately know who’s available to work and who’s not, streamlining staffing decisions. In some cases, these workers will even receive a digital “clearance badge” that they can present to security to facilitate streamlined entry to the workplace.

Beyond initial screening, the new standard also requires employers to establish policies and procedures for promptly reporting when workers experience symptoms consistent with COVID-19 while at work. Additionally, Virginia businesses must create procedures to notify other employees who may have been in contact with someone known or believed to be infected with the virus, within 24 hours of receiving a report. Relying on traditional face-to-face reporting practices not only increases the possibility of exposed workers infecting others, but creates considerable loopholes where communication could be disrupted, impacting how quickly the employer can respond.

Mobile-enabled software solutions provide the option for workers to quickly and easily inform their supervisors if/when they begin to feel unwell directly from their mobile device. Reporting in this manner eliminates unnecessary face-to-face interactions, and with automated notifications, notice of a potential exposure or change in symptoms can be immediately cascaded through business leaders, enabling them to take initial containment actions, like restricting access to a designated area of the workplace. Plus, these automated notifications enable the organization to advise multiple potential contacts that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 in a single step, all while preserving the confidentiality of the “index” worker.

It’s also important the organization has visibility on the status of individuals in self-isolation. The Virginia COVID-19 standard states employers must develop and implement policies to verify that quarantined workers with known/suspected infections are symptom-free for 72 hours before returning to work. Protocols that require managers to contact quarantined employees to regularly assess their health can be imprecise, time-consuming and difficult in cases where language may be a barrier. By utilizing a digital solution, organizations can request workers in self-isolation to submit daily symptom tracking questionnaires, in their preferred language, allowing the employer to monitor symptoms easily throughout quarantine and ensure that worker is symptom-free before starting a recall process.

Empower Employees with Job-Specific COVID-19 Training to Reduce Infection Risk

Keeping people safe starts with giving them the necessary knowledge they need to make good decisions and practice safe behaviors, especially during a pandemic. Consequently, the Virginia standard requires that workers receive job-specific training that will help them reduce their risk of infection. Training would need to cover a number of mandated topics, including how the virus spreads, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of infection, risks based on underlying health conditions, and the work practices required on-the-job including social distancing and hygiene.

RELATED: Best Practice Guide: Preparing Your Workplace to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19

Obviously, the nature of the virus doesn’t really offer many opportunities to complete training in traditional “classroom-type” settings. Mobile-enable solutions, however, offer organizations several flexible options to ensure critical information gets to the people who need it most. Many EHSQ software solutions offer not only the ability to schedule and monitor completion of required training, but leverage integrated digital learning content that workers can access and consume remotely at any time on any device. These e-learning and micro-learning applications include the ability to assign quizzes and evaluations creating evidence that training was not only completed but understood. In other cases, mobile apps tied to software platforms allow businesses to create simply surveys and questionnaires through which critical information can be conveyed, while also offering a platform for front-line workers to share comments, opinions and suggestions that can be used to strengthen pandemic protocols and safety culture.  

Control COVID-19 Hazards in the Workplace

Beyond taking all reasonable precautions to ensure exposed workers do not enter or remain in the workplace where they could spread the virus, the standard requires businesses to implement measures most appropriate to adequately control COVID-19 hazards. Where social distancing isn’t possible, perhaps based on the process design or the nature of the work (like on an assembly line), employers must ensure that workers are equipped with appropriate protective equipment to reduce the chances of infection.

But while setting out what controls must be in place is one thing, ensuring that those measures are followed and remain effective is another. That’s why businesses need to also enact procedures that ensure these measures are regularly inspected, to ensure gaps in compliance are identified and corrected quickly. Yet depending on the size of the workplace, and the number of measures to be checked, management can’t do this alone – they need front-line workers to be actively engaged in this process.

Relying on paper forms to complete inspections or capture proactive hazard reports slows the business’ ability to respond when problems are found. Having to collect paper records, then transcribe them into other systems is error-prone and time-intensive, increasing the lag time between when a hazard is found and when it could be resolved. Implementing a digital EHSQ solution allows inspections to be scheduled and assigned based on a pre-set frequency and tracked to ensure these necessary checks are happening when they need to be. Mobile apps allow front-line workers to record and submit inspections effortlessly from the field, and business rules allow corrective actions to be created the moment a compliance gap is found, reducing the time to act. And by tying compliance activities to visual dashboards and reports, senior leaders can assess compliance in real-time, helping to drive accountability for critical actions and provide meaningful insights to improve decision-making.

Respirator Fit-Testing: Ensuring Your Employees are Protected

Where the nature of the business doesn’t allow for physical distancing, Virginia employers are now required by law to ensure their employees are properly fitted with respiratory protection in accordance with OHSA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, including proper medical evaluations and fit-testing. For employers unfamiliar with that Standard, meeting these requirements can feel a little daunting. Yet many EHSQ software platform now offer respirator fit-testing features within COVID-19 packages to help businesses simplify the necessary steps to achieve compliance, and most importantly, ensure their employees are equipped with the personal protective gear they need to stay safe. Firms should consider solutions that allow users to automate processes so they’re immediately notified when a respirator fit test is required due to a change in job tasks, discovery of new exposure risks, or where supply chain disruptions force the business to purchase new respirators never before used. 

RELATED: COVID-19 Workplace Safety Checklist: Respirator and Mask Use

COVID-19 Regulatory Compliance: What’s Next?

No one really knows how the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve, or whether other U.S. states will follow Virginia’s example and create new emergency regulations to ensure businesses are doing all they can, and should, to keep their workers safe. But whether you’re following a mandatory standard, public health recommendation, or an industry best practice, digitizing your pandemic response program is going to set your organization on the right footing to keep your people healthy, and your doors open for business.

Learn More

To see how to manage your return to work and ensure compliance with COVID-19 regulations, check out this 90-second video:

COVID-19 Return to Work and Productivity SaaS Solution