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A screener takes the temperature of workers before they start their shifts at Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids.  A screener takes the temperature of workers before they start their shifts at Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids. COURTESY PHOTO

Workplace health screenings become the norm as state moves to next phases of reopening

BY Monday, May 25, 2020 02:44pm

The coronavirus pandemic never shut down D&M Metal Products Co. in Comstock Park, but it did change the way employees arrive at work.

In what are now four staggered shifts that start at 5:30, 6:30, 7:00 and 7:30 in the morning, workers enter at the same door. Each of the roughly dozen workers for the shift spends less than 30 seconds answering a few questions and having their temperature checked. Barring any signs of COVID-19 symptoms, they proceed to the shop floor.

“The process is really quick,” D&M President Bob Buist told MiBiz.

These health screenings are required under an executive order signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this month that reopened the manufacturing sector, and are becoming more widespread across the state. 

D&M, a metal fabricator, is also one of about 120 companies in Kent County that are sending the response data to local health officials in an effort to prevent outbreaks of the virus before they start. 

The partnership between the county Health Department, Michigan State University and the private sector is actively recruiting more companies to participate. Led by Walker-based supercenter retailer Meijer Inc., which had administered more than 1 million screenings across its various worksites earlier this month, the Kent County Back to Work program also is connecting companies with necessary supplies like thermometers. Officials hope the tracking program extends to neighboring counties.

As of press time, screenings were taking place at more than 300 sites, as some companies have more than one location. Initial data had been sent to the county but hadn’t yet been fully analyzed, county officials told MiBiz. Officials say the data do not include personal information.

Buist said the Kent County program has “really helped set a pace as this screening has been going on,” and that Meijer’s success with the program “helps a little guy like me.” D&M’s 58,000-square-foot shop north of Grand Rapids includes 55 employees.

“I don’t have the resources to spend a lot of time and effort on this,” he said. “We’re just trying to make parts every day.”

Cascade Engineering Inc., a diversified manufacturer with 10 facilities and about 800 employees in the Grand Rapids area, also has been submitting its health screening data to the county. It has reported two positive COVID-19 cases from workers.

Sharon Darby, Cascade’s director of environmental, safety and sustainability, says the company has created a detailed work safety “pandemic guide” that includes cleaning, social distancing and job duties. The state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity also has issued best practices for manufacturers that include eight steps for companies to follow involving administrative controls, hygiene and personal protection equipment, among others.

Although Cascade had scaled back operations, the guidelines had been in place for several weeks before Whitmer “threw a wrench” in its operations by requiring screenings and temperature checks.

“It’s going well,” Darby said of the screenings. “Our employees are happy about it — they wanted it. We’re seeing a lot of compliance and people taking it seriously.”

Six phases

With health screenings expanding and the reopening of bars and restaurants in the Upper Peninsula and 17 northern Michigan counties on May 22, Michigan is gradually moving to new phases Whitmer has outlined in her MI Safe Start plan. The plan by the Michigan Economic Recovery Council divides Michigan into eight regions.

Michigan has spent most of May in phase 3, or the “flattening” phase in which the virus is no longer spreading at high rates and the health system capacity is “sufficient.” To move into phase 4 of “improving,” cases and deaths must “decline more sharply,” health system capacity strengthens and robust testing and protocols are in place. This transition is occurring, shown by Whitmer’s May 21 announcement to reopen retail and automotive dealerships under certain limitations.

The board of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce recently approved the group’s Smart Restart agenda, which includes a series of policy recommendations for local, state and federal policymakers to jumpstart economic activity. They include various tax deferments, liability protection and business interruption insurance.

“We want to connect our policymakers with people in the business community to talk about how they’re preparing to open,” Johnston said.

Seeking clarity

In recent weeks, Whitmer’s critics have ramped up claims that her phased reopening plan is too vague. 

Johnston said it remains unclear the phase in which individual industries may fall. For example, Whitmer effectively moved the up north restaurant and bar industry into phase 4. As more regions of the state advance in phases, Johnston said it should be clarified what size gatherings are allowed. Whitmer’s May 21 order authorizes small gatherings of up to 10 people, but Johnston said it’s not clear what’s in store for gatherings of 50-100 people, for example.

He said indications from local health officials and hospitals suggest West Michigan may not be far behind in reopening.

“As the opening goes, the business community should be very clear that when we talk about reopening, it’s not going to be the way it was before COVID,” Johnston said.

Employers agree there were questions at first that are being ironed out.

“The issue for us has been: How do you deal with this?” Buist said, adding that he anticipates precautions to remain in place into next year. “You get such conflicting information. As things develop, we have been getting more clarity.”

As well, Buist thinks the coming months will bring more clarity to the actions taken since mid March.

“When there’s a lack of information, it’s difficult,” Buist said. “You can make it political, but at some level, our politicians are all trying to do the right thing. I have a hard time second guessing their decisions. Not that I don’t, but the country has so many thought processes going on right now, it’s hard to balance and understand what the right decisions are.”

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