Safety in a Tough Spot: How to Prevent Coronavirus Spread in a Crowded Meat-Packing Plant

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland April 21, 2020
meat packing

​Several major meat-packing plants have closed temporarily because of workers' coronavirus illnesses and fears, raising questions about whether the modern processing line—crowded and fast-moving—can continue cranking out product during a highly contagious pandemic.

That's where safety consultant Andrew Lorenz comes in. A former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector and now president of Wisconsin-based We R Food Safety!, Lorenz has helped meat producers large and small adapt their operations to protect workers from the coronavirus. The solution, he said, often depends on creative thinking and the collaboration of leaders throughout the organization, including HR.

"You hear a lot of doom and gloom," he said, but "if people put on their thinking caps, they'll be able to get through this." Adaptations almost inevitably slow production and thus lower profits, he said. But the alternative could be much worse. "Once you get [COVID-19] into the facility, you pretty much have to shut it down."

Create Small Teams and Keep Them Separated

A key strategy for containing the virus is to break up the workforce into as many separate and discreet teams as possible, limiting their exposure to other teams while working and on break. When one member of a team gets sick, the entire team quarantines.

Lorenz cited one client, a producer of beef jerky and other ready-to-eat snacks that runs three shifts and employs nearly 1,000 workers. As the threat of COVID-19 became clear, the manufacturer took several dramatic steps:

  • Split each of the three shifts into two teams. The A team works for four hours, then a clean-up crew sanitizes the workspace before the B team enters to work for another four hours. Each four-hour shift is followed by extensive sanitizing. This means half as many workers as usual are on the floor at any given time. Workers are paid for full eight-hour shifts.
  • Installed a health trailer at the entrance through which all employees must pass to enter the facility. There, a nurse scans temperatures and asks about any symptoms workers may have. The company owner was the first to walk through and have his temperature scanned.
  • Identified critical positions and ensured there were back-up employees to fill them. If only two employees were qualified for a critical position, one would be paid to stay home in case the other became ill.
  • Eliminated a point system that penalized employees for missing work, so that sick workers would stay home.

"They spent a lot of money on employees staying home, but they were able to maintain production. And their call-in [sick] rate went way down. People stepped up to the plate because they knew that everyone was taking it seriously, and it didn't hurt to see the owner walking through that trailer," Lorenz said. "They've had the least disruption of anyone I know, so it is possible."

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Small to midsize plants, especially those that are independently owned, are in a better position to make immediate operational changes to prevent infection spreads, he said. And if workers see tangible safety improvements, they are more likely to keep showing up for work. In fact, Lorenz said, improved employee attendance overall is one unexpected outcome at many retooled facilities.

But large industrial facilities with thousands of employees working shoulder to shoulder—now a staple of the beef and pork supply chains—have had a harder time keeping the virus out or containing it once it gets in. This was clearly demonstrated during the unfolding crises that led to clusters of COVID-19 cases and temporary closures at a beef facility in Colorado and a pork processor in South Dakota.

Trying, and Failing, to Get Ahead of COVID-19

On April 12, Smithfield Foods Inc. sent home 3,700 employees and closed its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., indefinitely. By then, more than 200 workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and the mayor and governor were asking for an extended closure.

The decision followed weeks of faltering attempts to contain the virus after the first worker was diagnosed in late March and employees' mounting fears they would get sick, according to interviews published in the Argus Leader.  As workers stayed home, disrupting operations, Smithfield announced a $500 "responsibility bonus" for those with perfect attendance for a month. But that gesture may have backfired. "I feel like they're bribing us with money to come to work sick," one employee told the newspaper.

Days before the closure, Kenneth M. Sullivan, Smithfield's president and chief executive officer, suggested the company had done what it could, including "adding extra hand sanitizing stations, boosting personal protective equipment, continuing to stress the importance of personal hygiene, enhancing cleaning and disinfection, expanding employee health benefits, implementing thermal scanning, increasing social distancing, installing plexiglass and other physical barriers, and restricting all nonessential visitors." But the virus was "ubiquitous" across the country, he said, and present in many beef plants.

On April 13, the JBS beef packing plant in Greeley, Colo., announced it would close for 10 days following negotiations with state officials and Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents most of its 6,000 employees. Three members who worked there have died, said Local 7 President Kim Cordova. JBS had said it would test all employees for the virus, but on the day the tests were to have been administered, the company announced the closure instead.

Like Smithfield, JBS said it had done what it could to protect workers by staggering shift starts and breaks, increasing spacing in break rooms and locker rooms, stepping up cleaning, providing masks and other personal protective equipment, and taking employee temperatures. Andre Nogueira, chief executive officer at JBS USA, noted the growing coronavirus caseload in communities surrounding the plant, suggesting the problem may lie outside the plant rather than inside.

The UFCW, however, maintains that the workplace connections to the spread are clear and says meat-processing companies must do more to keep employees safe. Marc Perrone, UFCW international president, said 30 union members working in food processing plants or grocery stores have died of COVID-19 already.

In an April 9 letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Perrone asked the government health agency to:

  • Mandate that all employers provide masks and other personal protective equipment and that workers wear them during the workday.
  • Ensure social distancing practices are implemented across the workplace wherever possible.
  • Make sure that safety practices are clearly posted throughout a facility and are in the necessary languages for employees to read.

The CDC has not publicly responded to the request.

Lorenz thinks a balance can be found that will allow meat facilities to operate safely, albeit on a smaller scale. "My clients that size have not gone through that," he said. "They planned, communicated and implemented pretty robust strategies. It's hard in those extremely large facilities, but there are a lot of things you can do. Slow production, space people further apart, control how they come in and out of the room, break them into small teams, sanitize rooms between groups. It's all about creating barriers of space or time."



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