Lansing man urges coworkers to mask up and socially distance at Grand Ledge plant

What is safe enough?

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TUESDAY, May 19 — Rick Luna doesn’t feel safe at work during the coronavirus pandemic. And his maskless colleagues aren’t making it any easier to find comfort.

Luna and his coworkers have plenty of space at ETM Enterprises — a 140,000 square-foot manufacturing plant in Grand Ledge. But keeping a six-foot distance can still be a challenge, and it doesn’t help that company policies don’t actually require staff to wear masks, he said.

“The other day, I came into work and walked from one half of the factory to the other to try to count how many people weren’t wearing a mask,” Luna said. “I stopped counting after 45.”

Luna, 49, of Lansing, has worked at ETM for nine years. The manufacturing plant employs several dozen people from across Greater Lansing, most of whom spend their time crafting molded fiberglass for trucks, tractors, ambulances and other vehicles, Luna explained.

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders, manufacturing is essential in Michigan. Companies like ETM are free to remain open but must enact precautions to keep their employees safe. Among them: Requiring masks for all staff that can’t keep a six-foot distance.

Steve Mohnke, a manager at ETM, said his company has provided its workforce with face coverings for weeks. Whether they actually wear them, however, is up to them, he said. Because his employees can usually keep adequate distance, they’re encouraged but not legally required to wear them, Mohnke said.

“We have way more than a six-foot separation between our employees,” Mohnke explained. “We do require them for employees working closely together for lengthy periods of time.”

Luna was among the few to wear a mask at ETM this week, he said. His wife — with a pacemaker and a heart condition — is vulnerable to the virus. And policies like those at ETM can pose an infection risk to not only his family, but the whole community, Luna argued.

“I don’t think I can tell anyone what to do, but i think our customers and all the surrounding communities that our employees live in would like to know” conditions inside ETM, Luna added.

Even if ETM is technically following the letter of the law, as Mohnke contended, Luna still has concerns about employees that refuse to take their own proactive precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Masks are designed to save lives. They just make sense, Luna argued.

Under the governor’s orders, all businesses that remain open for in-person operations are required to provide face masks, among other protective equipment, to their employees. They’re only required to be worn if staff can’t always keep their space or routinely interact with others.

Luna has snapped several photos of his colleagues huddled closely together without masks. Mohnke said those types of gatherings don’t happen often and aren’t required as part of the job.

But while the building is large, close contact with coworkers is almost unavoidable, Luna said.

“My supervisor is just more concerned with getting parts done. He just kind of shrugs his shoulders,” Luna said. “I’ve had conversations with our HR guy about it, and he seems reasonable, but then he comes into work without wearing a mask. I don’t know what to do.”

Whitmer’s latest executive order tasks various state agencies already responsible for workplace health and safety standards with also monitoring compliance with face mask requirements. Businesses that fail to provide (and sometimes require) masks, under law, have also failed to provide a hazard-free workplace under the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Violations for a “serious” OSHA violation could carry a civil penalty of up to $7,000 for each violation, eventually leading to criminal charges for repeated and willful lawbreaking practices. It’s unclear if mask-related violations qualify as “serious.” The legal standard hasn’t been tested.

For now, local authorities advise workers concerned about workplace safety to file a report with their local police department. Eaton County Prosecutor Doug LLoyd said complaints trigger an investigation, which usually begins with warnings and education before the pursuit of charges.

“Everybody reacts differently to this whole thing,” Mohnke added. “Some people deal in fear and not in facts. We’re just doing the best we can, operating in good faith and following the orders.”

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon sent a cease-and-desist letter to a pair of Big John Steak & Onion restaurants in Lansing for failing to require masks. She also asked LLoyd to check in at a Big John location in Eaton County, where staff has since reportedly masked up.

“Obviously, we have these orders and until a judge says otherwise, it’s our job to enforce them,” Lloyd added. “We do use some discretion in that these are brand new laws. People need time to learn and adjust to them. I believe that’s how police would handle this before filing any reports.”

Luna hasn’t filed any formal complaints with law enforcement. But with a dwindling cache of personal protective equipment back at home, he’s not sure how much longer he plans to stay on the job if his coworkers and his management don’t start taking the pandemic seriously, he said.

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