UPDATE: This story was updated late Friday afternoon with a response from Sanoh America Inc.
MOUNT VERNON -- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited a Mount Vernon manufacturer for violating COVID-19 safety precautions in August 2021.
The agency said in a press release Friday these violations led to the death of an employee and the hospitalization of several others.
OSHA received a complaint in August that Sanoh America Inc., a Mount Vernon auto parts supplier located at 7905 Industrial Park Drive, "was ignoring guidelines to limit employee exposure to the coronavirus and that several employees were sick," the press release stated.
The agency investigated and found "the company did not enforce its own policy or federal guidelines on social distancing and mask wearing."
When OSHA first inspected the facility on Aug. 12, 65 employees had tested positive for coronavirus. By Aug. 31, 88 had tested positive.
"During that time, five employees were hospitalized and two died," the agency stated. "OSHA investigators determined that at least one of the deaths was work-related."
OSHA cited the company for "one serious and one other-than-serious violation," according to the press release, and proposed penalties of $26,527. OSHA found the company also failed to record the work-related death and notify OSHA within eight hours, as required.
“Sanoh America’s failure to follow health and safety guidelines and its own company policies resulted in worker illnesses and death,” OSHA Area Director Larry Johnson stated. “OSHA continues to enforce all standards applying to the coronavirus and holds employers accountable for failing to meet their obligations to minimize worker exposure to the coronavirus.”
Federal investigators found Sanoh America issued a corporate-wide social distancing policy in March 2020 and trained employees in May 2020 on precautions for returning to work that included social distancing and mask wearing.
However, OSHA said the company did not follow these policies during the August 2021 breakout and federal inspection.
Sanoh America Inc. disputed these allegations Friday. Mount Vernon plant manager Jason Comer told Knox Pages in a written statement that four of the 88 cases that occurred during this time were deemed “work-related,” and OSHA “has not explained to us” how it came to that conclusion.
“During this time, Mt. Vernon was experiencing a large community-wide COVID-19 outbreak,” Comer wrote.
The delta variant was officially detected in Knox County on Aug. 13, and cases rose rapidly that month as the new strain spread throughout the community. Knox County recorded nearly 800 new cases in August, Knox Public Health reported, after seeing just 22 in June and 57 in July.
Comer said that “after this community-wide outbreak, COVID-19 cases among our workforce immediately subsided.”
In the six months prior to the August 2021 outbreak, Comer said Sanoh America’s Mount Vernon plant had seen just one COVID-19 case within its workforce.
“That case was not determined to be work-related,” he added. “The facility COVID-19 prevention plan was in place and working.”
Comer said that Sanoh America “has always been committed to the safety and health of its employees,” and indicated the company would seek additional information on OSHA’s investigation.
“Sanoh America remains committed to COVID-19 prevention among its workforce,” Comer wrote. “We will meet with OSHA to understand its enforcement position and evaluate our appeal options.”
Sanoh America is an auto-parts supplier specializing in tubular products for automotive applications. The company employs about 270 workers at the Mount Vernon plant and has manufacturing locations in Alabama, Indiana and Ontario, Canada.
Sanoh America opened its Mount Vernon plant in 1993, its website states.
The company has 15 business days from receipt of its notices to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or appeal the notices by submitting a summary of the agency’s position on the unresolved issues to OSHA’s regional administrator.
This is a developing story. Knox Pages will provide updates as more information becomes available.