(TNS) — The Michigan agency in charge of monitoring, investigating and ensuring workplace safety says the number of complaints have boomed exponentially amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Based on the criteria for reporting deaths, injuries and serious illness to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA), those investigations are likewise expected to experience a surge.

Typically, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) investigates 200 to 240 complaints per month, in line with what the agency received in January and February of this year, MIOSHA spokesperson Camara Lewis said, but those figures “skyrocketed” in March.

“The number of incoming complaints has increased to over 200 per week for the last several weeks,” Lewis said Monday, Aug. 31. “Just to put this in perspective, MIOSHA has received more complaints this year since March, than were received in” 2018 and 2019 combined.

Of the nearly 5,800 complaints this year, the greatest number, 1,312 or 23 percent, have occurred in the manufacturing industry, followed by retail, 16 percent; hospitality and food service, 14 percent; and health care and social assistance, 14 percent.

The greatest number of weekly complaints, 476, were reported during the third week of July between July 13 and July 17. MIOSHA issued a press release on July 13 that contained a complaint hotline number, which may partially account for the spike, Lewis said.

Complaints by month:

  • January: 210
  • February: 222
  • March: 938
  • April: 1,038
  • May: 758
  • June: 770
  • July: 1,503
  • August: 766

When it comes to death and serious injury or illness investigation, MIOSHA typically investigates accidents clearly connected to the job.

On Feb. 13, a 59-year-old sawmill laborer in Fairview was killed when his clothes became tangled in a debarking machine; a 42-year-old mechanic died March 13 after a car he was changing the oil on lurched forward and pinned him against a toolbox; and a 23-year-old volunteer firefighter in Gwinn lost his life also on March 13 after falling through the floor of a three-story home during a fire fight.

Of late, the death investigations are a little different. MIOSHA last week reported three new confirmed worker deaths, the 15th, 16th, and 17th of the year. All were COVID-19-related, categorized as “other” and involved victims who worked in Ann Arbor.

A 51-year-old public bus driver in Ann Arbor began experiencing symptoms while driving on March 16, called in sick the following day, was hospitalized March 22 and died on March 28, the same day his coronavirus test results were returned showing he was positive.

A 62-year-old clerk for a medical facility in An Arbor left work after experiencing symptoms on March 19. She never returned to work and died on March 29. “The death certificate lists the manner of death as natural due to COVID-19,” MIOSHA’s preliminary report says.

A 77-year-old custodian was asymptomatic during his last day of work, March 27, but later tested positive, was immediately hospitalized and died on May 3.

In each of the Ann Arbor cases, the employer reported the death to MIOSHA.

“MIOSHA has over 30 COVID-19 workplace fatalities that are in various stages of completion,” Lewis told MLive. “The three that have been released are the first that have been completed. More will be released as they are completed.”

As of July, the Michigan Nurses Association reported over a dozen potential workplace deaths connected to hospitals; in the Michigan Department of Corrections, where more than 5,100 inmates and 450 correctional officers have contracted the virus, three guards have died; by late April, nearly 200 Detroit police officers or civilian employees had tested positive, including an officer, 911 dispatcher and volunteer chaplain who died. There have been publicized outbreaks among workers at farms, bars, restaurants, offices buildings and factories.

While the law requires reporting of any work-related serious illness that results in hospitalization to MIOSHA, the lag time and nature of contagious illness can lead to confusion regarding the employer’s obligation, said Nelson Miller, a professor of employer law at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School and a former practicing attorney.

“Anything requiring medical treatment beyond first-aid qualifies” as reportable, Miller said. “A few days off at home because of (an illness) contracted at work would also qualify.

“I think employers are reluctant and able to claim that they need not report because of questions over whether the infection occurred in the course of work and work-related exposures ... So I think a lot of employers are sort of saying, you know what, we don’t know.”

Miller said some employers may be avoiding making reports to MIOSHA out of fear that they will face greater oversight, potential fines or other enforcement action.

He notes, however, that businesses found in violation for failing to report serious illness or death also face significant fines. Those generally range up to $7,000 but may be as high as $70,000 for repeat or “willful” violations.

Employers may also face misdemeanor charges that included fines of up to $500 and 90 days in jail for violating Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders establishing guidelines for businesses to safely reopen.

“I would advise that employers who are concerned that their employees may have contracted the disease ... go ahead and report,” he said. “That way you’re not involved in any kind of additional violations, any kind of a cover-up and that information may be very helpful.”

Miller said some employers are likely reporting to county health officials but they should be “mindful” of reporting to MIOSHA safety officials, as well.

MIOSHA reported 37 worker deaths in 2019 and you’d think we’d have “many times that number” already, Miller said.

“It is the responsibility of the employer to determine if the COVID-19 death was contracted at work or not, and if so, report it to MIOSHA,” Lewis said. “MIOSHA reviews the employers rational behind the determination.

“If MIOSHA is made aware of a potential COVID-19 related workplace fatality, an investigation is conducted to determine if the employer had the appropriate precautions in place at the time of the incident to protect their employees. If the investigation reveals appropriate precautions were not in place, a general duty citation may be issued.”

An employer must report a death within eight hours of becoming aware of it, assuming the death is the result of a workplace contraction of the coronavirus, Lewis said.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued criteria to help employers determine whether an employee case of COVID-19 is work related.

“This cannot be reduced to a ready formula, but certain types of evidence may weigh in favor of or against work-relatedness,” OSHA said in a May 19 memo.

If “several cases develop” among workers without an alternative explanation; if the case develops “shortly after lengthy, close exposure” with a customer or coworker with a confirmed case; or if the employee has close contact with the public in a community with a coronavirus outbreak and there are no alternative explanation, the infection is likely work-related, OSHA said.

OSHA is tasked with investigating work-related deaths involving federal and some state government employees. It hasn’t listed any coronavirus deaths this year. However, there is usually a six-month delay between the death or injury and completion of any investigation.

The federal safety agency has created “worker exposure risk” guidelines that identify greater risks based on the workers’ contact with the public, proximity to colleagues, or in the case healthcare and morgue workers, the most at-risk, the likelihood of coming into contact with airborne particles due to specimen collection or handling of the dead.

MIOSHA on Aug. 21 cited six businesses for failing to protect workers from the coronavirus, including:

  • United Shore Financial Services, LLC, based in Pontiac
  • UPS distribution facility based in Livonia, MI
  • Speedway, LLC, gas station and convenience store location based in Waterford, MI
  • Coop’s Iron Works, a fitness center based in Saginaw, MI
  • Dan Freed, a residential contractor based in Eaton Rapids, MI
  • Hills Roofing, LLC based in Niles, MI

“The MIOSHA investigations determined that these six employers were clearly not taking the appropriate steps to protect employees and their communities from the spread of COVID-19,” MIOSHA Director Bart Pickelman said. “These citations are meant to reiterate the employer’s duty. Precautions are necessary to establish and maintain a work environment where everyone can return home safe and healthy.”

MIOSHA does not require businesses to report common illnesses, such as a cold or the flu, regardless of whether they result in death or serious illness.

The agency has published guidelines for businesses and employees to follow as businesses across the state reopen.

Any workplace safety complaints or death, injury or illness reporting may be made made to MIOSHA, 855-723-3219 or via the agency website.

©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.