On May 13, a fourth USDA food safety inspector died from COVID-19 after being exposed to the virus at a meat processing plant, according to Paula Schelling, acting president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 45, which represents 6,500 federal food inspectors nationwide.
“We learned yesterday of another sad development, and we don’t know all the details, but we were saddened to report that the safety inspector did die as a result of the coronavirus,” says Schelling. The inspector was located in Dodge City, Kansas. Three additional inspector deaths occurred in New York, Illinois, and Mississippi over the course of the last few weeks.
The coronavirus has been prevalent in meatpacking plants, likely because many employees work together in close contact with each other. Schelling says that USDA inspectors usually work on the production floor checking meat for safety and are often in close proximity with the workers.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, more than 30 meat workers have died of coronavirus and another 10,000 or so infected or exposed. This has caused approximately 30 plants to shut down at some point in the past two months. However, on April 28, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing all meatpackers to reopen, and more than a dozen plants that were closed came back on line.
For inspectors, USDA promised new safety protocols to make the job safer, though the union is not sure enough is being done. “I know they have provided some face masks, and they say they have accrued enough for a couple of months—I’m not saying they are N95s, but they are face masks—and they’ve also procured 5,000 face shields,” Schelling says. “They have also gotten sanitizer that they can distribute to plants.”
The problem, she says, is that some plants don’t have access to face shields, even though they are now mandated to be worn. For instance, a plant in Burlington, Wisc., may have them, but a plant in Chicago does not. Yet, the inspections still go on.
Additionally, some plants have added Plexiglas above their tables requiring inspectors to look through two layers of plastic to be able to inspect properly, which could be problematic. “We need PPEs, but some of the safety aspects of what they have done, they have not thought through, [nor] do we know if it meets any OSHA guidelines,” Schelling adds. “I want safety for the employees I represent, along with the company employees who work in these facilities, but we seem to be in a reactionary mode instead of being proactive. And we don’t know if things are working.”
As of May 12, 123 FSIS employees are practicing self-quarantine due to virus exposure, and 171 field employees are out from work due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, according to USDA.
Some are upset about President Trump’s order to keep plants open, especially as more employees and inspectors continue to get ill. “This administration seems more concerned with making good on its ‘reopening America’ slogan than protecting the health and safety of front-line workers and American consumers,” says Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national president. “The President’s order will do nothing to improve the unsustainable status quo, where food inspectors and thousands of factory employees across the nation have already tested positive for the coronavirus.”