/Mississippi plant workers call for COVID-19 protections

Mississippi plant workers call for COVID-19 protections

The update was not made. Rumours had circulated that a worker at the plant was suffering from possible COVID-19 symptoms. He may have left with a runny nose and may have been going to get tested. Tanner, vice-president of the IUE–CWA Local 83799 union and his coworkers offered a prayer before they returned to their stations at Crystal Springs’ transformer manufacturing plant. Ten minutes later, Tanner’s manager ordered everyone from the winding department to leave the plant, while they did a “deep cleaning.” Nearly 40 workers waited in the cold, afraid they would be arrested if they left. Eventually, a manager arrived to answer any questions from angry employees. Tanner stated, “It’s many things they ain’t really sharing with the people.” “My concern is that we don’t really know who we’re interacting with in the plant. “We don’t really know who got what.” Manager asked them to return work. ABB claims it has done almost everything it was supposed to, except for ceasing operations or sending its 300 employees home as a result of the deadly virus that is sweeping through Mississippi. Some employees can telecommute, while others are required to work on the floor and to wear masks when it is not possible. According to the company, it provides employees with daily briefings on COVID-19 cases in accordance with its policy of total transparency. It also said that it provides sanitizer, screens employees’ temperatures as they enter, and offers a unique 14-day paid leave for those who contract the virus. Employees stated that the plant doesn’t usually offer paid sick days or personal days. Workers who are concerned about their safety have to make the decision to return to work each day. The truth is that these efforts do not suffice. Mississippi Today reported Wednesday that 16 ABB employees tested positive for COVID-19. This includes six active cases. The rate of confirmed cases among employees at ABB is five times the rate for the whole state, considering the plant’s size. In June, COVID-19 claimed the life of a 46-year-old worker. Kevin Brown, a 14 year ABB employee and chief union steward, stated that his cousin suggested to him recently that he quit his job so that he could quarantine as many Americans do right now. Brown stated, “I said, ‘I can’t afford to leave home,’” Brown added. Brown stated that it was scary that people are dying, and it doesn’t seem to me the company cares about anything other than the bottom line. Although the company claims it has a “very intense contact tracing process” and that all infected employees have been exposed to the virus via personal contact outside of the plant, workers don’t believe it. “The painter who has it now…he said that he doesn’t travel anywhere. Brown stated that Brown wears a mask everywhere he goes. He said, “And the only places that he goes are work and home, so it was necessary to catch it at work.” Brown added that three employees from the same department had gone home within a week. Yet, the company is still doing everything it needs to. State health officials repeatedly stated throughout the pandemic, and particularly recently, that their capacity for contact tracing was limited. Thomas Dobbs, State Health Officer, and Paul Byers, State Epidemiologist, said Tuesday that companies are not legally required to notify all employees about a COVID-19 case. Officials say that the health department works with businesses to develop guidelines and recommendations for quarantine once they have identified the patient’s workplace. Problem is that recommendations and conversations must be made within the patient’s transmission window. Because of the natural time lag, you’re always behind. Dobbs stated that while we do have some public safety authority to do certain things, the majority of what we’ll do, is give guidance and recommendation. Every business, every business, and every person must have a safety protocol using masking and socially distant engineering. Otherwise we will have outbreaks. It is not as simple as it seems. Beyond providing guidelines and assistance with case investigation, there is limited capacity to conduct individual outbreak investigations on the ground. “We’re just absolutely incapable of it.” Meanwhile, the spread of the virus is increasing across Mississippi and increasing the department’s capacity for investigation and contact tracing. Dobbs stated Tuesday that the state is facing a “sea of outbreaks” and said most cases are caused by young people spreading the virus to others at social events. As the case-positivity rate continues to rise and the rolling average of new cases increases, more than 30,000 cases have been reported and over 1,000 deaths. The safety of workers is ABB’s top priority at its North American headquarters. Although the corporate headquarters stated that its plants clean common areas such as restrooms and cafeterias at least three times per day, Brown explained that disinfectant can’t be used on copper wire and metal machinery that he and his coworkers touch every day. One worker who had been positive for the disease left work in June to go into quarantine. Robert Daniels, a union president and another worker arrived at the plant to work on the machine on Saturday morning. “No cleaning was done. Brown stated that they are actually exposing him the same virus as he had. This is because the company isn’t doing what they feel they should. Daniels stated that “the area should have been cordoned off”. “They don’t want to stop production.” Brown claimed that plant management had not replaced disinfectant in the bathroom in the manufacturing department for two months and that the product was on backorder. Brown stated that they had stock bathrooms in offices where managers work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issues disinfectant and infected worker isolation guidelines. It also requires that all workplaces report work-related COVID-19 instances. Like most coronavirus reports, reliability is determined by the manner in which data are collected and shared. OSHA regulates workplace safety protocols and advises safety officers that they make every effort to determine whether COVID-19 cases are work-related. OSHA’s reporting guidelines advises that COVID-19 illness is likely to be work-related if there are multiple cases among workers working closely together. OSHA advises that if the employer can’t determine whether exposure in the workplace was a causal factor with respect to a specific case of COVID-19, then the employer doesn’t need to record the COVID-19 illness. Union reps claim that most cases were between workers who work close to each other. Research is expanding on how coronavirus spreads between people. Scientists have known for some time that coronavirus spreads via respiratory droplets. However, scientists initially focused their attention on disinfecting surfaces to reduce spread. Research has increased in recent months to emphasize the importance of airborne particles in virus transmission. While researchers agree that hand washing, masking, and social distancing are good protection measures, there are disagreements about how small and long the virus particles can remain in the air. Brown stated that while most employees wear masks at work, it is difficult to wear one in the welding shop where temperatures can reach 98 to 100 degrees. While the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to suggest that person-to–person transmission (which involves the transmission of respiratory droplets by close contact) is the most prevalent form of transmission, there is growing evidence suggesting that the virus can also remain in the air. WHO has agreed to examine new evidence and update its policies. This includes indoor spaces that are closed off or poorly ventilated, such as factory environments. Five union presidents from ABB plants in Mississippi, California, Missouri, and Pennsylvania wrote to WHO on May 20 asking for hazard compensation, which is a 15% increase to the hourly wage, during the pandemic. They wrote that “while each shop has taken their own measures to mitigate the virus, we know that reporting to work could expose ourselves, our families and our communities to it.” Officials from the union said that the company, which recently merged with Hitachi to create Hitachi ABB Power Grids, would allow managers to decide whether or not to give the additional pay. “Employees work within controlled environments that allow physical distancing, and don’t require interaction with the public. Mississippi Today was informed by the company that they have not offered hazard pay. Workers told Mississippi Today that the local plant’s management, which has greater control over the work environment, showed even less concern. Brown replied to workers’ questions by saying “You’re lucky that you have a job.” Daniels stated that plant management sought medical records from the worker’s doctor to determine if he was positive for coronavirus. Daniels stated that the safety director called the worker while he waited for the results. He informed him that he had been tested negative before the doctor called and encouraged the employee to return to work. Daniels claimed he tried to complain about the situation to the health department but was denied by the representative. In an email to Mississippi Today, the company stated that “for the protection of our workers, our safety director confirms any impacted employee tests positive before returning to work.” Daniels, a 22-year employee, was fired in March after he posted a Facebook message informing his fans about the latest developments at the plant. The plant had already sent some people home to quarantine after they had just returned from travel. Why did they fire him? Misrepresentation. In his post, he claimed that ABB had sent two people home when in fact they had sent four. Daniels claimed that the human resource officer had acknowledged that he had “a strong case for arbitration” when she fired him. He eventually got his job back after signing an apology and getting an attorney. However, the union believes the incident demonstrates the plant’s attempts to silence its workers. Workers have asked ABB (now Hitachi ABB Power Grids) to temporarily close the facility for deep cleaning. They also requested that the schedule be established for the regular cleaning of workstations. The workers were also notified of any COVID cases. Workers will be sent home for quarantine for 14 days if they come in contact with someone who has tested positive. They are still waiting for a response. To support this important work, make a regular donation to the Spring Member Drive today.