While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance for employers in meat, poultry, and seafood processing, grocery, retail, and food manufacturing to protect their worker health as the nation sees COVID-19 numbers drop, the agency did not include these food workers in a new emergency temporary standard (ETS) issued in early June that requires employers in high-risk industries—including health care—to provide certain worker protections from COVID-19.
Among the suggested measures were:
- Staggered arrival times and breaks;
- Improved ventilation; and
- Supplied visual cues as reminders to maintain physical distancing.
The ETS does not require those in the food industry—including meat facilities, grocery stores, and food manufacturing—to follow these measures, nor does it require a written hazard analysis and safety plans, though they are mandated for health-care facilities.
“Following an extensive review of the science and data, OSHA determined that a healthcare-specific requirement will make the biggest impact,” said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh during a press call.
One group unhappy with the updated guidance is the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million essential workers in food and retail environments. Marc Perrone, president of UFCW, condemned the guidance, noting that excluding those working on the front line at grocery stores and meatpacking facilities was a mistake, and that these workers deserve the same protection as healthcare and nursing home staff.
“The current COVID safety guidelines in place are unenforceable and leave millions of essential grocery, retail, meatpacking, and food processing workers to fend for themselves as they face hundreds of potentially unvaccinated people every day,” Perrone said in a prepared statement. “The reality is that voluntary guidelines are not enough on COVID safety.”
Recent numbers released by the UFCW revealed that COVID-19 continues to threaten essential food workers nationwide, even as vaccines become more prominent. Between March 1 and May 13, 2021, the organization saw a nearly 35% increase in grocery worker deaths and almost 30% growth in grocery workers infected or exposed following supermarket outbreaks.
“OSHA has a responsibility to protect all of America’s frontline workers and to fully enforce CDC guidelines as well as requirements in a new ETS on COVID for all employers as promised and urgently needed,” Perrone said. “This is a slap in the face to the millions of American frontline workers and their families who have been infected and killed by this deadly virus.”
Food workers, especially those in the meatpacking industry, were severely impacted in the early waves of the pandemic.