California adopts stricter workplace coronavirus safety rules

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SAN FRANCISCO – California officials on Thursday approved new regulations requiring employers to implement safety measures aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, becoming the latest state to adopt stricter rules.

The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board heard testimony on an emergency temporary standard that requires businesses to educate employees on ways to prevent infection, provide free personal protective equipment and offer free COVID-19 testing to all employees if three or more employees are infected with the coronavirus within a 14-day period, among other measures.

California joins Oregon, Michigan and Virginia in implementing similar standards. Virginia became the first state in the country to approve temporary new workplace safety rules after lawmakers passed the measures in July, citing inaction by federal officials.

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Labor groups said the new regulations are needed to set clear, enforceable standards.

“Prior to this there was guidance that employers should be following, but this standard provides a more streamlined message of the safety measures they are required to take,” said Maggie Robbins, an occupational and environmental health specialist at Worksafe, an organization that promotes safety rights in the workplace.

The standard was criticized by employers who were among more than 100 speakers who addressed the board before a planned vote, with many saying that an across-the-board standard applying to all businesses is not practical. Business representatives also pointed out that many of the measures are already included in recently approved laws, local health orders and executive orders.

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Mike Hall, who spoke on behalf of the Pacific Maritime Association, a San Francisco-based group representing the Pacific coast shipping industry, said shipping companies are spending more than $1 million a week on sanitation and cleaning and have had few COVID-19 infections.

Hall said the requirement to test all employees if three or more positive cases are reported is impractical.

Cal/OSHA has received nearly 8,000 complaints about workplace safety since August, with most of its citations issued to employers for not ensuring that workers maintain physical distancing or not properly reporting COVID-19 illnesses in the workplace, according to Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a San Jose Democrat.

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Cal/OSHA did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking details about how many citations it has issued, what industries have been most reported, or what the repercussions for violations are.

“Over a 14-day period, thousands and thousands of workers pass through port facilities in Southern California. If there was an occurrence of three individuals with the virus, the facility would have to test thousands and thousands of workers during the working hours every single week. This is just impossible,” Hall said.

Teachers, janitors and factory, hotel and restaurant workers urged the board to approve the new regulations, many telling personal stories about being infected with coronavirus at work.

Virgilda Romero, who works in the Los Angeles garment industry, said she contracted the virus at work where her employer did not provide soap for washing hands, did not make sure workers kept at least 6 feet of distance and did not inform them when a colleague took time off because he had contracted the virus.

“After I returned to work, the bosses told me a colleague had died from COVID,” she said. “I’m worried I can get sick again and infect my family.”

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The emergency standards take effect within 10 days and last for at least six months.

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