Virginia became the first state to hold employers to a new COVID-19 emergency workplace safety standard, and construction contractors don't like it.
A prominent construction safety coalition said the new requirements, which took effect July 27, are too broad and hard to meet.
The standard requires employers to carry out a menu of safety measures such as temperature tests and surface decontamination that are recommended in federal guidelines and routinely observed by many larger companies. But Virginia’s temporary standard also includes requirements for certain employers to ensure that "psychological and behavioral support is available to address employee stress" and that sick leave policies "are flexible and consistent with public health guidance."
Those requirements were criticized by the Construction Industry Safety Coalition, whose 27 members include most national contracting associations.
The safety coalition wrote in a comment submitted several weeks ago to the state labor department that such rules go beyond what existing state regulations require or what was asked for in an executive order by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) seeking the emergency temporary standard.
Information about how the virus is transmitted changes frequently and rapidly, so a standard that locks in action triggers based on symptoms or means of transmission is premature and overly prescriptive, the coalition claimed.
The executive order "actually calls for [the state labor department] to issue a very limited standard focused on protective equipment, sanitation, exposure, medical records and equipment," the coalition wrote. Instead, the department expanded its mandate "exponentially, requiring a smorgasbord of various requirements" and resulting in a "cumbersome standard" that will not be "effective at protecting employees."
The emergency temporary standard, which expires in six months, does not require employers to perform any contact tracing. Complying with federal guidelines that are equal to the state requirements would also keep employers in compliance.
Officials of the state chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors could not be reached for comment.
Similar to other industries, construction has long sought, and previously worked under, federal, state and local safety regulations written uniquely for it. Construction employers are also subject to many of the same safety rules that apply to general industry.
But under the new Virginia standard, construction is classified as a medium-exposure-risk industry, along with food processing and restaurants.
In the spring and early summer, when the virus growth curve appeared to be flattening, and before the outbreak had spread throughout the South and West, many believed federal recommended guidelines and local rules requiring distancing, face coverings and surface decontamination in workplaces would be sufficient.
So far, U.S. employers have argued successfully that it is too soon to issue a federal temporary coronavirus emergency workplace safety standard. The U.S. Labor Dept. has complied, restricting itself to issuing and updating safety guidance for employers. Oregon, however, is developing its own emergency temporary standard.