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Michigan streamlines MIOSHA workplace rules as COVID fades

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June 17: This is it: Michigan to end gathering, mask rules on Tuesday

Michigan altered COVID-19 work rules on Monday, adding flexibility for vaccinated workers and ending a push to make the heightened safety rules permanent. But the state also left in place some pandemic requirements that changed day-to-day business practices.

The changes coincide with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent announcement that businesses would be allowed to resume in-person work beginning Monday.

 

The two steps will help “businesses return to normalcy,” Whitmer said at a press briefing Monday morning in Grand Rapids.

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Employers can now allow fully vaccinated employees to work without masks or social distancing, Whitmer said. Industry-specific restrictions also were lifted, allowing activities like dancing in bars and ending a rule that required barriers such as plexiglass at checkout counters in stores. 

While employers must have a written COVID-19 preparedness and response plan and continue to screen for the virus as part of their day-to-day operations, the updated rules more closely connect state regulations to evolving federal guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in-progress revisions to national workplace standards from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s COVID rules, dating to last fall, had been initiated “to keep employees safe” through the pandemic, according to the state. 

But the business community has grown increasingly frustrated by what it saw as the state’s overly cautious approach to relaxing work rules, particularly as COVID-19 cases declined in the past month and more residents were vaccinated. Businesses cited the administrative details and expenses associated with keeping up with the complicated and detailed set of regulations. 

The state’s strict COVID work rules — which called for masks, social distancing, health screenings and more at workplaces — had been in place since last fall and were to last until October 14. An effort to make the rules permanent had been underway, with a hearing scheduled for Wednesday. But Whitmer canceled it late last week and promised the revised MIOSHA rules that she detailed Monday. 

Business leaders said Monday’s moves are a good step, based on initial reviews of the revisions.

 

“The revised MIOSHA rules are significantly streamlined and live up to the spirit of what we were told to expect last week,” Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said in a statement. 

“The rule set allows for more efficient, automatic adoption of changes in CDC guidelines and several out-of-date requirements have been eliminated. These rules also allow more flexibility in how they are implemented by each business.”

Calley added: “This is a significant positive step forward.”

According to the state, the MIOSHA changes that take effect Monday include: 

  • Employers may allow fully vaccinated employees to not wear face coverings and social distance as long as non-vaccinated individuals continue to follow these requirements.  
  • Employers must update their written COVID-19 preparedness and response plan in accordance with the revised rules.

While the state said strict office cleaning requirements also have been reduced, the order says “the employer shall increase facility cleaning and disinfection,” but ties that to CDC regulations. According to the latest federal update, CDC guidelines now say once-daily cleaning is enough if “no people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 are known to have been in a space.”

Since the pandemic began, MIOSHA received over 15,000 complaints from employees who said there were uncontrolled COVID-19 hazards in the workplace. At different points in the pandemic, outbreaks have raged in nursing homes, prisons, manufacturing facilities and other workplaces.

Employers have reported 61 workplace deaths from COVID-19 in Michigan and 173 hospitalizations that may be related to workplace exposure. Among them are a Detroit bus driver, a city manager who’d worked election day, and people in the healthcare industry.

“We know many workers are still nervous about coming back to work,” said Susan Corbin, acting director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and supervisor of MIOSHA, during the event in Grand Rapids. 

Some workers have underlying health conditions that compromise their safety even if they’ve been vaccinated. Others may not have had access to vaccines yet. Corbin urged employers to recognize that they may be in a location in the state with less access. 

“Not every region or every workplace is as far along as we’d like,” she said. 

Vaccination rates vary widely in Michigan, from 73.5 percent of all adults 16 and up in Leelanau County having had at least one dose — and 62.4 percent having both — to 34 counties with fewer than 50 percent with at least one dose. 

In Detroit, the state's largest city, just 35.3 percent of adult residents have had at least one dose. Regions with high vaccine rates include Grand Traverse and Emmet counties in northern Michigan and Oakland and Washtenaw counties in metro Detroit. All are between 65 and 68 percent with at least one dose.

There will be sessions for employers with MIOSHA and various business chamber groups across the state, starting on Tuesday, to help workplaces adapt to the rule revisions. 

The changes bring “the clarity that a lot of businesses were hoping for,” Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber, told Bridge Michigan.

Andy Johnston
Andy Johnston, vice president for government affairs at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. (Courtesy photo)

They also make sense as the emergency continues, Johnston said. Ongoing health screenings, safety protocols and training help employees feel comfortable as they adapt to fewer COVID-19 restrictions. 

Still, employers are likely to have a lot of questions, Johnston said, especially about how enforcement will continue. At least 282 businesses were cited for violations of COVID business rules, with results ranging from warnings to fines of thousands of dollars.

MIOSHA does plan to enforce the revised regulations, said spokesperson Jason Moon. 

“Citation classification will be determined, and associated penalties will be assessed on a case-by-case basis,” Moon said.

On May 14, Whitmer announced that state residents who have been fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks, and then on Thursday said that all outdoor capacity limits and a nightly curfew on bar and restaurant hours will be lifted on June 1. Indoor capacity will be increased to 50 percent with no maximum for larger facilities, allowing venues like event spaces, funeral homes and stadiums to increase attendance.  All state COVID restrictions will be lifted July 1, Whitmer has said, though she included the caveat that this timeline could change if circumstances dramatically change.

The pace of change is requiring rapid responses from businesses, which may still choose on their own to require that customers or staff mask up.

“We have to recognize that they have the authority to do that,” Whitmer said Monday. 

Data reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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