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Employers asking federal agencies for worker-safety guidance as they roll back COVID-19 protocols

Posted at 5:30 AM, Jun 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-07 06:56:58-04

VALLEY CITY, Ohio — Manufacturers and other employers in Ohio are rolling back COVID-19 protocols while they’re often eager to see guidance from federal agencies about how to keep workers safe as coronavirus case numbers drop.

The safety glasses around Rouven Noawack’s eyes protect him from the massive machinery he works with at Superior Roll Forming in Valley City. For much of the past year, those glasses complemented a mask over his mouth and nose to protect him and his co-workers from COVID-19.

Rouven works at Superior Roll Forming in Valley City on the first day he's allowed to be on the manufacturing floor without a mask.

That mask is gone now since Ohio’s social distancing and mask mandates ended on June 2, marking a stark difference between the United States and Noawack’s home country of Germany.

“Here, the restaurants are open, the bars are open,” said Noawack. “In Germany, it’s closed.”

Before the mandates dropped, Superior Roll Forming President and CEO Bill Johnson took COVID-19 protocols seriously.

“We took the ‘All-or-nothing’ proposal with our group and our employees,” said Johnson.

Superior Roll Forming makes heavy frame parts for cars.

Rooms had maximum occupancy signs, taped off seats at tables ensured social distancing and the company took five weeks off at the beginning of the pandemic to figure out how to work safely.

Johnson said employees were paid the whole time and the installation for a $2 million piece of equipment was delayed for almost a year while the company sorted through how to keep workers safe.

Masks were required all the time on the manufacturing floor but also in the office, even when employees were in a room by themselves.

“It sounds stern, but it allowed us to be fair across the board,” said Johnson.

With the Ohio mandates gone, so are the masks at Superior Roll Forming. Social distancing is still encouraged but with most of his employees saying there were vaccinated or would be soon, Johnson said he’s happy to let them handle themselves.

Workers at Superior Roll Forming on the first day that masks were not required on the manufacturing floor.

“We discussed it as a staff: do we get badges, do we put a stamp on employees foreheads [showing] they’re vaccinated,” Johnson said sarcastically. “We didn’t want to intrude in that way. That’s not what we’re here to do, we’re here to support our employees.”

There’s a lot of leeway for Ohio employers right now because the state and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance allows vaccinated people to go anywhere and do anything they want without a mask.

CDC guidance allows vaccinated people do almost anything without a mask in any environment.

But the CDC isn’t in charge of keeping workers safe. That’s the job of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which hasn’t updated its COVID-19 recommendations since January, leaving employers asking for advice.

“In this weird particular confluence of events, they were actually eager and practically begging OSHA for guidance, which unfortunately never came,” said Frantz Ward LLP Labor and Employment Practice Partner Christina Niro.

Niro represents companies when they interact with OSHA and she said the best the agency has done so far is put a banner on it’s website which reads:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new guidance relating to recommended precautions for people who are fully vaccinated, which is applicable to activities outside of healthcare and a few other environments. OSHA is reviewing the recent CDC guidance and will update our materials accordingly. Until those updates are complete, please refer to the CDC guidance for information on measures appropriate to protect fully vaccinated workers.

That means when OSHA inspectors show up at job sites, no one knows exactly what they’ll want to find because its last official guidance requires mask wearing and social distancing, which contradicts CDC guidance for vaccinated Americans.

“I think OSHA has a hard time demonstrating harm to employees if an employer is following CDC guidance,” said Niro.

That’s not a problem at G&T Manufacturing where Vice President of Operations Colin Cutts said masks are gone and workers stay and distanced as possible.

Workers at G&T Manufacturing are encouraged to keep their distance.

A lasting change is a more-flexible time-off policy, allowing workers to take extra time off when they’re sick to make sure they don’t spread illness to co-workers. Cutts said it’s possible because of federal aid coming to businesses.

“The old adage in manufacturing always was: It’s better to be sick at work and be paid to be sick than to stay home and not get paid, or to use your vacation when you’re miserable,” said Cutts.

News 5 reached out to OSHA to see when it might have new guidance coming out. We still haven’t heard back.

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