California Closer to Worker Covid-19 rule as its cases climb

California moved closer to adopting an emergency Covid-19 worker protection rule following the release of proposed requirements in advance of a Nov. 19 meeting where the standard could be approved, according to BloombergLaw.

As of Friday, there were more than 1 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 18,141 deaths in California, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The data doesn’t track how many of the cases are work related.

The proposed rule would require employers to make virus prevention measures part of their injury and illness prevention programs the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health—popularly known as Cal/OSHA—requires for other hazards.

If the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board approves the measure on Nov. 19, it could take effect in early December following a final legal review and official publication by the state. The standards board is likely to approve the measure following a 6-0 decision in September instructing regulatory staff to have a rule ready for consideration in November.

Although the rule would be temporary and initially in place for six months, it could be renewed for 90 days at a time until either it’s replaced by a permanent rule or the board decides the regulation isn’t needed.

Indoor, outdoor mask mandates

California is one of 22 states that have agencies charged with protecting private-industry workers.

Virginia, Oregon, and Michigan have enacted emergency regulations, and some states such as New Jersey and Nevada have used executive orders to set workplace virus protection mandates.

Among California’s newly proposed measures: the Covid-19 prevention programs must include a mandate for employers to provide face coverings and ensure they are worn by workers who are indoors and by workers outdoors who are less than six feet from each other.

The proposed rule would set broad requirements such as separating workers by at least six feet unless an employer can show the spacing isn’t possible, and installing ventilation air filters capable of capturing the virus.

The program must also explain the employer’s policies for allowing employees to miss time from work without penalties if they are infected or suspected of being infected. Workers exposed to the virus must stay away from the workplaces for 14 days.

The proposal also would cover housing for agriculture workers. Among the requirements are that beds remain at least six feet apart in all directions, that common areas are large enough for workers to stay six feet apart, and that building assignments give priorities to keeping workers on the same crew in the same residences.

Worker Petition

Worker advocacy groups petitioned the state in May to enact such a regulation. Steven Knight, executive director of Worksafe Inc. in Oakland, Calif., one of the organizations that sought the measure, said his group was encouraged by the proposed standard. “We look forward to its swift passage and immediate enforcement to protect California workers,” Knight said Friday in a written statement.

Knight added that the rule could be stronger and he expects Worksafe’s concerns, such as those pertaining to social distancing requirements, to be taken up later.

Some employer groups opposed the emergency rule, saying California’s existing regulations cover coronavirus hazards. The state already has a rule for preventing airborne diseases, such as Covid-19. However, it applies only to health-care facilities.

As of the end of October, Cal/OSHA had conducted 1,451 virus-related inspections and issued citations following 41 of the inspections, according to agency numbers. Three inspections led to proposed fines of more than $100,000.

Trump administration leaders of the U.S. Department of Labor and federal OSHA have repeatedly said they don’t believe a federal virus rule is needed. Instead, they have argued that enforcement actions can be pursued under existing rules and laws.

President-elect Joe Biden (D) has said enacting a nationwide Covid-19 worker protection rule is a high priority.

The federal OSHA on Friday said it had issued 204 citations and assessed nearly $2.9 million in penalties for coronavirus-related workplace safety violations from the onset of the pandemic through Nov. 5.