Some workers worry about safety as manufacturing plants reopen

Susan J. Demas

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced last week that manufacturing companies could reopen Monday as a part of her MI Safe Start Plan.

Her plan to reopen manufacturing companies, which accounts for 19% of the state’s economy, represents a significant part in re-engaging the state’s economy.

The decision also falls under phase three of her six-part plan to reopen the state amid a decline in the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 and the state’s effort to ramp up testing, as previously reported by the Advance

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However, workers like Tim Remer are wondering if they’ll be safe on the job during the pandemic.

Instead of breathing a sigh of relief after being called back to work after being unemployed for more than a month, Remer, 46, recalls his first thought was, “Oh, shit.”

The Imlay City man returned Monday night to his job at a plastic injection plant in his hometown that produces items like car and recreational vehicle (RV) parts.

He’s worked at the plant for more than 24 years and said he didn’t think his plant was ready to reopen.

“I’m nervous and anxious about going back to work,” said Remer.  

Other workers from across the state have taken to social media to express their anxieties about heading back to work following news about Michigan’s Big Three auto companies, General Motors, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, resuming manufacturing operations next week.

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United Auto Workers (UAW) President Rory Gamble said Friday he knows there’s a lot of concern among workers as the state re-starts the economy. But said the union has the contractual right to protect its members, and it will do so at all costs.

“Our UAW focus and role is, and will continue to be, on health and safety protocols to protect our members,” said Gamble in a statement.

Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber said he spoke with workers in April who have also expressed their fears about heading back to work too quickly during the pandemic.

“Going back to work isn’t going to be like flipping on a light switch. Workers are going to be very apprehensive,” Bieber said, “and there’s going to need to be a whole lot of patience shown [for] everyone.”

On Friday, Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA) President John Walsh, a GOP former lawmaker, said he’s confident that state manufacturers are prepared to deliver on the worker protections included in Whitmer’s order.  

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“We believe the manufacturing industry has a big role to play in Michigan’s economic recovery and we’re ready to lead the way,” said Walsh.

But although the rate of new cases is dropping, worries remain. Michigan has seen 48,021 positive cases of COVID-19 and 4,674 deaths as of Tuesday afternoon.

So what happens if workers don’t want to come back so soon?

In some circumstances, employees have the right to refuse to work if their employer hasn’t taken steps to protect workers from the disease. Workers would potentially be protected by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health (MIOSH) Act if they refused to work, but only if they alert their employer about dangerous conditions and the employer doesn’t take action to improve conditions.

If employers don’t take actions to improve conditions, employees can file a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety & Health Administration (MIOSHA), which did not return a request for comment.

According to Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) spokesperson Erica Quealy, MIOSHA received more than 2,000 complaints related to COVID-19 since March, and many of them are still open. 

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Best practices

Meanwhile, LEO is encouraging manufacturing facilities to review best practices to keep workers safe and healthy.

LEO outlined eight steps for employers to take to keep workers safe. The first includes a COVID-19 mitigation plan. Facilities are advised to create a “health checklist” or daily symptom tracking survey, train employees about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and demonstrate proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks that should be available to workers.

In addition, facilities are advised to assign dedicated entry points to reduce congestion at a main entrance, screen worker temperatures as a condition for daily site entry and bar workers if they have a fever of 100 degrees and up.

Social distancing measures also should be in place to keep people at least six feet away from one another, stagger shifts and timing to reduce congestion and to provide visual cues like tape and signs to reinforce distancing expectations.

Manufacturing facilities should provide handwashing and hand sanitizer for their workers. Plants are advised to conduct more frequent cleaning and provide cleaning crews with materials and disinfectants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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Workplaces should put a protocol in place for COVID-19 symptomatic employees and possibly closing back down. They should provide guidance to exposed employees, clean the workspace of someone who’s symptomatic and has been sent home and shut down some areas within a facility if there’s a positive case. The facility is also advised to document the case and share information with labor unions, health services and health insurers.

Remer and his coworkers are adjusting to the big changes they’re seeing inside the facility. 

“The easy part is following social distancing and wearing the PPE that’s been provided, and the challenge is keeping the tools and shared work spaces clean,” said Remer. 

He and his coworkers are now required to swipe a card instead of manually punching in at the beginning or end of the shift, and have to get their temperatures taken before coming in the building. 

“This is our new normal,” Remer said, “and it’s going to take some time to get used to it.”