A U.S. Congressional subcommittee launched an investigation into widespread coronavirus infections at meatpacking plants on February 1, 2021. The investigation follows reports that nearly 54,000 workers at 569 plants tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 died.
Some organizations such as United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a labor union representing approximately 1.3 million workers, say that plants should have done more to protect workers. Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is making efforts to improve worker safety, while the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and the three food manufacturers named in the letter say that they have gone above and beyond to ensure employee safety during the pandemic.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC), chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent a letter to OSHA and to Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA, which are three of the nation’s largest meatpacking companies. Each company has had multiple COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, OSHA failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” Clyburn wrote. “It is imperative that the previous administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.”
In response, Marc Perrone, president of UFCW International, said in a statement, “Chairman Clyburn’s investigation will bring the transparency needed to hold the meatpacking industry accountable for the safety failures that resulted in hundreds of workers dying and thousands continuing to get sick from this virus every month.”
Policy expert Patricia A. Wester, CEO and founder of the Association for Food Safety Auditing Professionals in Gainesville, Fla., also believes Congress’ letter was justified and says that it highlights a serious regulatory and jurisdictional gap between OSHA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). She says food facilities should have followed CDC Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) to combat outbreaks, and expanded them to cover activities not addressed by that document, which would allow others to benefit from their experiences. Furthermore, FSIS has well-defined boundaries for enforcement action options during food safety events that OSHA appears to lack; the meat industry might have been able to exploit that knowledge gap to further minimize OSHA’s enforcement actions.
In addition to Congress’ letter, in January 2021, President Biden issued an executive order calling on OSHA to increase protections for workers. In response, OSHA published new guidance to help employers and workers identify risks of exposure to contracting COVID-19 in the workplace. The agency is currently reviewing its enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 to identify any changes that could better protect workers and ensure equity in enforcement, an OSHA spokesperson tells Food Quality & Safety.
The agency is also working to establish a new national emphasis program to focus OSHA’s efforts on violations, such as those at meat processing plants, that put the largest number of workers at risk for contracting COVID-19.
In commenting on OSHA’s new guidelines, Wester says that the new document aligns with CDC’s COVID-19 guidance document, although gaps remain in both documents. As guidance documents, they are only recommendations, not enforceable requirements, handicapping OSHA’s enforcement authority. There are also operational gaps regarding how to prevent further spread when a worker tests positive for the virus, such as eliminating the common practice of temporarily storing PPE on a crowded, shared coat rack when workers leave production areas for breaks.
“In the days ahead, these gaps will need to be closed and enforcement language strengthened to prevent continued outbreak events in these facilities,” Wester says.