When Michigan was shut down in the spring due to COVID-19, industries spanning from manufacturing to hospitality were trying to convince Gov. Gretchen Whitmer they could reopen safely – with precautions in place, of course.
Nearly every sector has reopened in some way since.
But with COVID-19 remaining an ever-present threat, one state agency has been largely responsible for making sure workplaces are following virus precautions: The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
MIOSHA is one of a few state agencies to be tossed into the limelight this year. It’s tasked with ensuring all workplaces follow the new rules, with the goal of preventing virus spread while keeping Michigan’s economy flowing.
There’s been no shortage of leads.
The agency has received 12,046 complaints about health and safety violations in workplaces since March 2020. Around 90% of them are COVID-19 related, estimated Sean Egan, Michigan director of COVID-19 workplace safety.
That’s more complaints than MIOSHA had in fiscal years 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 combined, Egan said.
“What we knew in March is what we still need to be doing now – that’s social distance, wearing face coverings, practicing good hygiene and cleaning,” Egan said. “We’re really continuing to hammer that home.”
Egan’s team works off the mantra “educate before you regulate.” The MIOSHA website has pages of resources for different types of businesses and has a COVID-19 hotline for employers or employees to call with questions.
Violations more often stem from misunderstanding than from malice, Egan said.
“We’re not really seeing ‘I don’t want to do it’ scenarios out there,” Egan said. “We’re seeing employers that either haven’t implemented all the steps or maybe not understanding certain aspects of it.”
How heavy is their hammer?
Though used sparingly, there are still times MIOSHA has used its powers to fine businesses. The agency has done 832 on-site investigations and 49 businesses have been cited and fined for not following COVID workplace safety rules.
Almost all of the recent cases have been spurred by employee complaints.
While some employees might be afraid of being “a snitch” for reporting their workplace, the complaints are anonymous. Business closures or deaths could result from workplaces not following the rules, Egan said.
“I would encourage employees to recognize that the goal of these rules is not to punish employers, it is to protect employees,” Egan said. “It’s for their own benefit to make sure that they’re ensuring that their employers are adopting the rules and applying them appropriately to contain COVID.”
Employers have reported 30 workplace deaths connected to COVID-19 to MIOSHA so far in 2020, Egan said.
To force compliance, MIOSHA is allowed to fine businesses up to $7,000 for serious violations. If the business fails to comply, it can rack up $70,000 in fines.
MIOSHA leaders have asked the Legislature to increase the maximum fine to be in line with federal OSHA penalty levels – $13,494 per serious violation. Lawmakers have declined to move on the issue.
But the real power isn’t necessarily in the fine, anyway – but in the public shaming.
“Certainly to a huge employer, $7,000 might be a rounding error,” Egan said. “But it’s still significant enough because they have to abate it and it’ll be logged and available publicly that they had this violation.”
The list of businesses cited by MIOSHA for COVID-19 violations is publicly available online. Even once businesses fix the issues, their name remains on the list – acting as a deterrent for other Michigan businesses.
“I think that does have an impact, for sure,” Egan said.
MIOSHA isn’t alone in its regulation aspirations. Local health departments and law enforcement can enforce Michigan Department of Health and Human Services precautions.
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The Michigan Liquor Control Commission has been enforcing orders with perhaps the biggest bargaining chip in hand – threatening to suspend business’ liquor licenses. The MLCC has done so in 26 cases already for restaurants that opened dining rooms or didn’t require masks in violation of MDHHS orders.
While MIOSHA works with these other agencies, it’s more focused on making sure workplaces are keeping up precautions – rather than punishing businesses illegally open, Egan said.
How will vaccines alter the rules?
MIOSHA’s COVID-19 rules are in effect until mid-April. State law allows leaders to extend the rules for up to six more months – which Egan said they’ll consider once spring gets closer.
While vaccines are expected to give most people immunity from the virus, Egan said the expectations for businesses won’t change in the near future.
“What we’ve been telling businesses is, expect the rules to remain in place and be applied equally across the board regardless of vaccinations because there is too much that we don’t know,” Egan said. “What we do know is social distance, masking and good hygiene help prevent the spread of COVID.”
Workplace COVID rules will be applied the same – regardless of whether an employer requires its workers to be vaccinated.
While MIOSHA leaders have discussed vaccine mandates from employers, Egan said it’s decided the issue is outside its purview and more in line with other state agencies.
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