Michigan Workplace Safety Director: Companies, Employees and Customers Must Align as Businesses Reopen

Sean Egan has a strong message for Michigan residents, workers and business owners as the state starts to reopen in the wake of coronavirus: Everyone collectively has a role to play in maintaining the health, safety and strength of Michigan and its economy – and that starts with wearing a mask or face covering of some kind.

In early June, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Egan to serve as Director of COVID-19 Workplace Safety. His job is to make sure that businesses, workers and customers alike understand and follow the state’s safety measures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Egan said one of the most important aspects of the work he will do as Director of COVID-19 Workplace Safety is to empower workers to know their rights in the workplace. Equally important is his role to reassure businesses that the state will stand behind them in the effort to stem the spread of coronavirus now and in the future.

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One way that happens is every business must set specific requirements when it comes to wearing a face mask or covering, he said. That means pushing employers to take a stance and require those face coverings.

“We have to understand that we have both a public-health crisis as well as a workplace safety challenge. For the most part, working with employees and employers, we can work through the workplace safety challenges,” Egan said in an interview with Corp! magazine Tuesday.

“Employers are going to need to be ready, willing and able to require face coverings because we know the transmission of COVID primarily is through large droplets or aerosols that we create when we talk, sneeze or cough,” Egan said.

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“Certainly, it does live on surfaces and that is why we talk about hygiene so much and to not touch your face, eyes, nose or ears,” Egan added. “But primarily these face coverings are going to be the critical path for preventing outbreaks of COVID. We know there are safe limitations for certain types of businesses, but all businesses really need to post those signs … that say face coverings are the law. No mask, no entry. It’s the law. The Executive Order does say all people who are medically able must wear a face covering if they enter an enclosed public space. It does allow the employer in that same Executive Order to deny service.”

Hard work
Egan said he understands the need to reopen safety and regain some of the lost revenues and customers that businesses may have lost during the long quarantine. But some things are worth doing and doing well, he added.

“I’m going to try to push and hope for a commitment from the business community that they are going to in fact potentially deny service but require those face masks upon re-entry,” Egan said. “We don’t want to do that to the point where we put (employees) in harm’s way … but just as a general policy, it’s important for businesses to say we recognize that face coverings are the critical path to avoiding a future outbreak. We want to be a part of that solution. So if you want to come in here, you need to have one if you’re medically able. And if you’re not, we’ll work with you manage that.

“It’s going to be hard,” Egan said. “The worst outcome we could have is another outbreak and have these fits and starts as I call them of: You’re open; now, you’re closed. We can avoid that if we do this correctly. I think it’s important to note this isn’t a liberty issue; this is a community issue. We are protecting the workers inside that place and protecting their livelihoods by wearing those masks or face coverings. We’re protecting those workers who are going to be required to wear the face coverings. We’re protecting the person who is coming in and their livelihood. So we both need to have those.”

Egan’s appointment follows the state’s efforts to ensure Michigan workers are protected as the state slowly and safely begins to open different sectors of the economy. Last month, Gov. Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-91 requiring businesses to adhere to strict safety guidelines to protect workers, patrons and their communities from infection. Gov. Whitmer also signed Executive Directive 2020-6 to appoint a Director of COVID-19 Workplace Safety within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO).

Egan, a lifelong Westside Michigander, served in the Navy and afterward started an apprenticeship and became a Journeyman Electrician through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). He maintains his membership in his Union and state license as a journeyman to this day.

In 2007, he was elected by the members as the head of the Local Union representing construction electricians, manufacturing, broadcasting, and electrical motor service industries. His duties included managing the nonprofit operations and representational activities for members.

In addition to this new role, Egan also serves as Deputy Director for Labor at the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) where he oversees MIOSHA, Workers’ Disability Compensation Agency, the Bureau of Employment Relations and the Wage and Hour Division. He started that job in Octrober 2019.

“The biggest asset that I bring to the table is that I advocate for working people across the state of Michigan,” Egan said. “I’ve also been in the field as well as an electrician, and that brings a unique perspective. I understand the day to day of showing up to work and making the workplace safe.”

Egan holds a Bachelor of Business Administration with a concentration in finance from Davenport University, and a Juris Doctor (JD) from Thomas M. Cooley Law School he earned by going to classes nights and weekends while continuing to work and raise his three children with his wife.

Coordination manager
Egan said he will work with Michigan’s many agencies, public and private organizations as well as employers to give companies and workers the tools they need to go back to work. That can be Personal Protective Equipment or PPE. That could be posters and signs to hang on the office door or in the workplace. It could be help understanding the rules and to apply them.

Coordinating all of that information will happen through the state’s COVID-19 websites, toll-free numbers as well as helpful groups like the MIOSHA’s consultation team, which can take calls and help employers and employees with every question along the way – especially as new science, executive orders or information becomes available.

“We must remember that workers will also face challenges returning to the workplace. We must consider that we must allow workers to leave and remain out of the workplace if they have symptoms, exposed or caring those those with COVID,” Egan said. “Workplaces must be flexible and act in accordance with the law and common decency.”

But it also is key for employees to talk to their managers and report any workplace safety issues quickly and consistently, he noted.

“This is a new workplace framework to accept, adopt and reinforce day in and day out,” Egan said. “Workers and managers have new obligations. Workers must do their part. Employers must be more flexible and nimbler as employers. And customers must follow through with masks and good hygiene.”