With the COVID-19 Delta variant continuing to spread throughout the United States, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released updated guidelines that impact food industry workers. The agency says that meat, seafood, and poultry processing plants, grocery stores, and agricultural facilities are considered “higher-risk” workplaces and those working in them should be adhering to the new guidelines.
Chiefly, the guidelines state that vaccinated workers—as well as unvaccinated workers—in these environments should wear masks. The new guidelines coincide with CDC’s latest guidance recommending that masks be worn indoors in places where COVID-19 is more likely to spread.
While OSHA encourages all workers get vaccinated, OSHA also offered recommendations to protect unvaccinated workers and other at-risk workers in these facilities. These include removing all infected people or those experiencing symptoms from the workplace, in addition to anyone not fully vaccinated who has close contact with someone with COVID-19, requiring them to stay out of the workplace for at least five days after contact. Additional recommendations include maintaining ventilation systems and implementing physical distancing.
“After reviewing the latest guidance, science, and data, and consulting with the CDC and partners, OSHA has determined the requirements of the healthcare Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) remain necessary to address the grave danger of the coronavirus in healthcare,” the guidelines state. “Our priority is the safety and health of workers, and we will continue to enforce the law to ensure workers are protected from the virus while they are on the job, including through OSHA’s National Emphasis Program on COVID.”
While Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, sees the updated safety guidance as “a step in the right direction,” he believes it doesn’t do enough, noting that it fails to fully protect the millions of U.S. grocery stores workers and those at meatpacking plants who continue to get sick and die on the front lines of the pandemic.
“With COVID Delta cases skyrocketing across the country, essential workers are more at risk than ever before and urgently need action to strengthen workplace safety standards and ensure these standards are fully enforced in all 50 states,” he says.
UFCW says that since the start of the pandemic, the union has seen 483 front line worker deaths and approximately 93,900 front line workers infected or exposed; 198 grocery worker deaths and nearly 43,900 grocery workers infected or exposed; 132 meatpacking worker deaths and 22,400 meatpacking workers infected or exposed; and 67 food processing worker deaths and 13,100 food processing workers infected or exposed.
The union is urging OSHA to issue a stronger ETS.