State Says City of Youngstown, Ohio Violated Health and Safety Regulations for COVID-19Greg Garner
As much of the country moved to working remotely in March 2020, firefighters didn’t have that option. Unfortunately, one city in Ohio didn’t give firefighters the training or equipment necessary to work safely.
Youngstown, Ohio, violated multiple health and safety regulations and put firefighters at risk. While the union was able to get some results, it took too long.
Keep reading to learn what happened and why it should never happen again.
The Basics of the Violations
While the violations happened last spring and summer, it’s important to consider them. Youngstown, Ohio, and other cities could violate COVID-19 health and safety regulations. You should know what has happened to avoid repeat incidents.
The city of Youngstown didn’t follow Ohio COVID-19 regulations when it came to their firefighters. An agency in Ohio issued four health and safety hazard violations. The law director didn’t disclose the details when the violations occurred.
Youngstown responded to the violations and worked with the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC). That way, the city could be in compliance with health and safety standards during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When They Happened
The firefighters union filed a complaint after they attempted to work directly with the city. Unfortunately, working with the city was unsuccessful as the fire chief did not work with the union to provide enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to Youngstown firefighters.
The union started trying to work with the city in February, before the COVID-19 pandemic was a serious threat in the United States. As the pandemic became more serious, the union kept trying to work with the City of Youngstown.
Over the next few months, the violations occurred. Then, the Ohio risk reduction program issued the four violations to Youngstown, siding with the union.
The violations covered issues with a lack of standard operating procedures and not enough PPE making it hard to comply with state regulations. Violations also included a lack of fit testing for N95 masks and the fact that there was no respiratory protection program.
Who They Affected
While the city violations mostly affected firefighters, it also affected the union because it took time to contact the city. Firefighters’ family members and the people that firefighters worked with in the field were also part of this group.
Because firefighters didn’t have adequate protection or training, they had to expose themselves and others to potential infections. If a firefighter had to treat a COVID-19 patient without wearing a mask, that made it easy for that firefighter to get the virus.
It’s unfortunate that the city could have avoided the issue by working with the firefighters. Then, everyone could have had the training and equipment necessary to do their jobs.
The Fire Chief’s History
Many of the problems related to the health and safety violations had to do with the Youngstown Fire Chief, Barry Finney. The firefighters union already had issues with Finney before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In December of 2019, the union issued a no-confidence vote against the chief. The vote came after the union expressed concern for Finney’s leadership style. After the vote, the city closed a fire station despite the union’s objection.
After the union attempted to work with the fire chief starting in February, it took a lot of time for the chief to respond. Chief Finney wasn’t interested in following health and safety regulations or industry standards regarding PPE.
The chief’s combination of leadership issues and a lack of caring for firefighters drove the union to complain to the BCW.
The City’s History
Other issues involving the city relate to overtime. During the early months of the pandemic, Youngstown used up all of its annual overtime budget for the fire department. Because of that, the city rotated closures between fire stations to cut costs.
The city also closed stations for overtime back in 2018. Also that year, the city demoted three captains and three lieutenants to lower costs. Youngstown also took one firetruck out of service.
This all matters because it shows the city has a history of caring more about money than firefighters. While the 2018 incidents didn’t relate to not following health and safety regulations, closing fire stations can be a problem during a pandemic.
The Union’s History
As mentioned, the union already had a bad relationship with the Youngstown Fire Chief. The union didn’t want to file a complaint and gave the chief months to work with the union.
However, the pandemic got to the point where the union needed help. By complaining to the BCW, the firefighters could finally get the equipment and training they need during COVID-19.
Then, the firefighters were able to return to work feeling safer. While the COVID-19 pandemic was still serious and is still a serious issue months later, having equipment and training helps. Now, the union is still going to work with firefighters, but they have one less thing to worry about.
What the Chief Did Provide
Although it took months of contact and a formal complaint, Fire Chief Finney did provide what the firefighters needed. The equipment and training have since allowed Youngstown firefighters to do their jobs properly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, the firefighters should have received these things from the beginning. However, it’s a good start. And it’s a reminder that all employers and businesses should follow COVID-19 health and safety regulations.
Consider a few things that the fire department got early on and after months of struggling.
While the chief didn’t provide much at the start of the pandemic, he did give all firefighters a handbook. The handbook contained information on PPE, and it covered updates to standard operating procedures.
However, the chief didn’t go through the handbook with the firefighters. Everyone had to read it themselves on their own time. And with a city of firefighters, odds are not all of them read through the handbook.
The union said that they offered to train firefighters on how to use PPE. But the chief only ever provided a slide show through email to members of the department.
After the union complained to the state, the chief finally provided mandatory training on airborne and bloodborne pathogens in June. The training gave firefighters the knowledge necessary to treat patients after car accidents and other stressful situations.
Anyone working in health care or with sick or injured people should have some sort of training on the subject. Of course, it’s important during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will still help to prevent the spread of hepatitis and other infections.
That way, firefighters can do their jobs well and help people throughout the city and country. Regular training on pathogens can help current and future firefighters prepare for the worst when working.
Also after the complaint, the chief distributed N95 masks to the firefighters. The state agency’s law director said that they gave out N95 masks as soon as the masks were available.
Now, firefighters can use the masks when working with people but also at the station. That way, everyone can minimize the chances of spreading COVID-19.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear if the chief taught firefighters how to wear N95 masks correctly. Doing so would make the masks more effective, but giving out masks in the first place is a good start.
The Effects of the Violations
While Youngstown, Ohio has started following health and safety regulations, there are still some negative effects. The time that the city didn’t follow regulations took a toll on the fire department and those close to it.
Between March and June 2020, six firefighters got COVID-19. While following Ohio COVID-19 regulations earlier may not have prevented the cases, it probably would have helped.
Aside from the firefighters, you can’t be sure that they didn’t pass COVID-19 to patients, family members, or other people. Because of that, preventing the six cases could have prevented many more in total.
Putting off training and other safety measures also affected firefighters’ abilities to do their jobs. If they tried to protect themselves without masks, they may not have been able to do as good of a job helping people.
What the Board Ruled
The Ohio State Employment Relations Board ruled that the city violated the union’s collective bargaining rights. Youngstown also retaliated against its members when it sought to eliminate three battalion chief positions.
Part of a union’s job is to protect its members, and the union did everything it could to carry out that goal. Unfortunately, the chief and the city made it hard for the union to do that.
After the ruling, Youngstown asked a judge to overturn the ruling. However, the city still should continue to follow health and safety regulations to protect firefighters and other city employees and residents.
As Covid cases remain high in the city, Youngstown needs to do everything it can to reduce the spread. Part of that is providing firefighters with necessary equipment and training.
Following Health and Safety Regulations
As the COVID-19 pandemic started and grew, health and safety regulations shifted. However, Youngstown, Ohio, didn’t comply with the new regulations, putting their firefighters in danger.
Luckily, the firefighters union complained to a state agency that forced the city to comply. But that doesn’t mean Youngstown and other cities won’t break the rules in the future.
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