LIMA — As the number of new COVID-19 cases rises across Ohio, employers are given wide discretion when responding to confirmed cases found in their workplaces.
Ohio’s Responsible Restart industry guidelines recommend that most employers — including retail stores, offices, manufacturing facilities, salons and even restaurants — temporarily shut down shop or floor areas where an infected individual worked to allow for deep sanitation, but employers are only encouraged to do so “if possible.”
And the guidelines recommend, rather than require, employers to cooperate with local health departments to identify potentially exposed workers who may need to be quarantined.
That flexibility is helpful to businesses, but workers who worry their employers are not doing enough to keep their workplaces clean after a case of COVID-19 has been confirmed have few options beyond speaking to management or raising concerns with their local health department.
“We would ask (the employer) what they’re doing about cleaning and other precautions,” Putnam County Health Commissioner Kim Rieman said. “We would go back to the guidelines.”
Those conversations would extend to other workplace safety issues, Rieman said, like whether employees are wearing masks properly and what sorts of symptom assessments are happening.
Even when an outbreak is identified, health departments often take on an advisory role.
That’s how the Mercer County Health District approached the outbreak at the Cooper Farms processing plant in St. Henry, in which more than 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were discovered in May.
The health district worked with the plant to find and quarantine close contacts of the infected individuals. And sanitarians made several walk-throughs to help plant leadership update safety standards, like installing plexiglass shields between workers who were unable to stand six feet apart, according to Mercer County Health District Administrator Jason Menchhofer.
“It wasn’t anything where we were in there saying, ‘Do this or we’re going to shut you down or you’re going to have to pay a fine,’” Menchhofer said.
In fact, Menchhofer said Cooper Farms invited the health district to tour the plant several weeks before its first COVID-19 case was discovered.
The most common workplace safety concern Allen County Public Health Commissioner Kathy Luhn hears from employees and customers alike is about masks.
“That comes down to the employer setting the expectation for their employees and following through with that,” Luhn said. “You could set an example by wearing one if you’re management or owner of the business, reminding people to put their masks on, making masks available (or) working with employees.”