OSHA Cites Meatpacking Plants for Coronavirus Failures

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland September 12, 2020
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OSHA Cites Meatpacking Plants for Coronavirus Failures

The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Sept. 10 issued its first citation against a meatpacking plant for failing to protect workers against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, S.D., was cited after more than a thousand workers became ill and four died. A second plant was cited the following day. 

Earlier in the summer, in its first COVID-19 enforcement actions, OSHA issued two sets of citations against nursing homes for failing to provide adequate personal protective equipment to employees. 

We've rounded up articles on the latest developments from a variety of sources.

Maximum Fine Allowed by Law

OSHA proposed a penalty of $13,494, which it said is the maximum allowed by law, for the Smithfield plant. Based on a coronavirus-related inspection, OSHA cited the company for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm. At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted coronavirus, and four employees died from the virus in the spring of 2020.

(U.S. Department of Labor)

Second Meatpacking Citation Issued Late Friday

On Sept. 11, OSHA announced a second COVID-19 meatpacking citation, this time against JBS Foods Inc. in Greeley, Colo., where eight employees died. OSHA proposed $15,615 in penalties to JBS, which operates as Swift Beef Co., for "failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus."

(U.S. Department of Labor)

Worker Advocates Say Amount Is 'Insulting'

Worker advocates have been pressing for more attention and protections to address the COVID-19 risks that vulnerable populations—including farm and meatpacking labor—face. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union called the Smithfield fine "completely insufficient" and "insulting." The pork-processing plant closed in April after hundreds of employees tested positive for the coronavirus, quickly making the plant one of the largest infection clusters in the country. The outbreak drew national attention as federal and state authorities pressed Smithfield and other closed plants to reopen as soon as possible.

(Politico)

Smithfield Says It Will Appeal

Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield, said, "After an investigation that spanned many months and encompassed the review of over 20,000 pages of documents and 60 interviews, OSHA has issued only a singular citation under its catchall 'general duty clause' for conditions that existed on and prior to March 23, 2020. This is notable because OSHA did not issue guidelines for the meatpacking industry until April 26, 2020." Lombardo said the company "took extraordinary measures on our own initiative to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible so that we could fulfill our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply."

(Meat + Poultry)

California Has Separately Cited Others

California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) this month cited and proposed fines against one frozen food manufacturer, two smaller meat packers, and eight agriculture or farm labor contracting firms, after the agency determined the companies failed to protect employees from exposure to COVID-19. Cal/OSHA has issued citations to frozen food manufacturer Overhill Farms Inc. and its temporary employment agency Jobsource North America Inc. The agency proposed over $200,000 in penalties to each employer for failing to protect hundreds of employees from COVID-19 at two plants in Vernon. "The employers did not take any steps to install barriers or implement procedures to have employees work at least six feet away from each other and they did not investigate any of their employees' COVID-19 infections, including more than 20 illnesses and, in the case of Overhill Farms, one death," the agency said in a statement.

(AgWeb/Reuters)

Smithfield Offered Workers $500 'Responsibility Bonus'

Although union representatives said workers asked for coronavirus precautions and protections at the beginning of the pandemic, they were denied by Smithfield management. Instead, the company offered a $500 "responsibility bonus" for going to work every day. The company installed a temperature station at the entrance to the plant once the outbreak gained national attention. The first case was reported March 24, and the plant was temporarily closed April 13 after Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken wrote a letter asking it to close for two weeks.

(Argus Leader)

Virus Hard to Contain in Large Facilities

Small to midsize plants, especially those that are independently owned, are in a better position to make immediate operational changes to prevent infection spreads, according to safety consultant Andrew Lorenz. 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.

(SHRM Online)

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