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Courtesy of Virginia Mercury

Virginia occupational safety inspectors have opened investigations into seven employee deaths related to COVID-19 and four hospitalizations, according to the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.

The department said more investigations are forthcoming following reports of three additional COVID-19 related employee deaths.

The cases represent the state’s first formal inspections of workplaces in response to COVID-19 safety concerns, which have prompted thousands of employee complaints since March alleging inadequate sanitation, protective equipment and social distancing.

Until last month, the state had resolved the complaints it deemed valid – 427 as of Friday – exclusively through informal “phone/fax investigations,” in which inspectors forwarded employee complaints to employers and asked them to provide documentation showing they’d addressed the unsafe conditions.

In addition to the inspections launched in response to deaths and hospitalizations, the department has also initiated formal inspections in response to three employee complaints alleging unsafe working conditions related to COVID-19, said Jay Withrow, a lawyer with the Department of Labor and Industry. He said they were opened either based on the nature of the initial complaint or because the employers’ response to the informal investigation was deemed inadequate.

He said the name of the employers and contents of the complaints are confidential under state law until the investigation is complete.

In the case of the workplace death inspections, he said officials first attempt to determine whether “it is more likely that the employee contracted the disease away from work.”

“This is a threshold decision that has to be made before any potential violations could be issued directly related to the cause of an employee’s death,” he said in an email. “However, even if (the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health program) determines that the death was not work related, it will still look to see what precautions the employer had in place to protect the remaining employees from the possibility of exposure to either known or suspected COVID-19 positive employees.”

So far, the state has reported just one workplace death and one hospitalization related to COVID-19. Annandale Healthcare Center, a 220-bed nursing home in Fairfax County, informed the state on April 29 that a registered nurse had died and a second was hospitalized in the ICU, according to a May 5 list of complaints that had been closed following an informal phone/fax investigation.

The complaint was subsequently reopened, officials said last month, explaining why they couldn’t provide documentation detailing their review. It is not clear whether the nursing home is included in the 14 employee hospitalizations and fatalities the state says it is now formally investigating.

The facility’s parent company, CommuniCare, confirmed the fatality and hospitalization and said state investigators had been in recent contact. Spokesman Fred Stratmann said the facility took steps in early March to protect patients and employees from the virus and has not experienced shortages of protective equipment like masks, gowns and face shields other facilities have faced.

“Obviously we’re devastated by the loss of any employee,” he said. “Our employee culture is very important to us and we do feel tremendous pain … it’s just a difficult situation all around.”

State safety officials say they continue to conduct inspections remotely to the extent possible, including confidential interviews with employees by phone.

“In the case of a deceased employee, we contact the family and offer them the opportunity to provide any information that might be helpful to the inspection,” Withrow said. “In addition, we try to obtain copies of medical records, EMT reports, autopsies, and police reports (if applicable). If we need to go onsite as part of the inspection, we will, but for both the safety and health of the employees at the work sites and our compliance officers, we are trying to limit exposure to COVID-19 as much as we can.”

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam directed the state’s labor commissioner, C. Ray Davenport, to develop emergency workplace safety regulations addressing common employee complaints.

Withrow said the department plans to post draft regulations early this week. He said written comments will likely be due June 8 and a meeting of the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board is tentatively scheduled for June 11 to approve, amend or reject the new rules.

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