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State officials are probing the workplace safety practices of at least a half-dozen employers in connection with deaths of workers related to COVID-19.

The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry has opened seven inspections of employers based on those company’s reports of an employee’s death, Jay Withrow, the agency’s director of legal support, said in an email last Friday. Two deaths are linked to one facility while the other deaths relate to individual employers, he said.

The agency also had received reports of three other employee deaths, he said, adding that state officials were in the process of opening inspections in those cases.

The department also was probing four cases referred to the agency by employers of workers who were hospitalized, Withrow said. It had opened three additional inspections based on employee complaints.

Withrow would not name the employers involved, where they were located nor detail the specifics of the cases.

“I’m sorry but we don’t release any information from open inspections until a decision is made on whether to issue citations and penalties or not, and we are not at that stage yet,” Withrow wrote in an email.

As of last Thursday, Withrow said the state had investigated 427 employee complaints related to the coronavirus.

“Please note that when it comes to COVID-19 employee deaths, as is done with all reported employee deaths, VOSH [Virginia Occupational Safety and Health] will be making a determination on whether the death appeared to be work related or not,” Withrow wrote.

In the case of COVID-19, he said the state will look at whether it was more likely that the employee contracted the disease while away from work. Even if a death is deemed not work related, the agency would still examine what precautions are in place to protect remaining employees from potential exposure to the disease, Withrow said.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order last week directing state officials to come up with emergency regulations on how to lessen the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, guidelines that are supposed to address issues such as personal protective equipment, sanitation and employee health records.

The Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board is tentatively scheduled to meet June 11 to consider new regulations to address those issues.

The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s disclosure that it was probing the cases came in response to questions from the Virginia Mercury, which first reported the issue in an online article Tuesday.

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