It also calls for use of personal protective equipment and changes to attendance policies so employees aren’t penalized for taking sick leave if they have the coronavirus.
“As essential workers, those in the meatpacking and processing industries need to be protected from coronavirus for their own safety and health,” Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said in a news release. “OSHA’s newest guidance document outlines steps employers can take to provide a safe and healthy workplace for workers in the meatpacking and processing industries.”
Coronavirus outbreaks in U.S. meat facilities have led to a slew of plant closures, including more than 15 owned by some of the nation’s largest meat processors: Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and JBS. The closures have devastated rural communities, where these companies are often among the area’s largest employers, and threatened the nation’s supply of beef and pork. Industry analysts say production is already down by at least 25 percent.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson’s executive board, wrote in a full-page newspaper ad published in The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday.
“We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.”
Major meat companies and OSHA have come under fire for failing to protect workers in the face of fast-spreading outbreaks. Many workers say companies put production over their safety and have failed to provide adequate PPE and promote social distancing. Others say they’ve been encouraged to stay on the job while sick. And though OSHA’s newly released meatpacking and processing guidance offers more detail on practices to protect workers, such guidance remains voluntary.
“These outbreaks that have sickened thousands and killed dozens were not inevitable in the meat industry,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior OSHA official who is an expert on meat processing plants. “If OSHA had started enforcement, employers like the meatpacking industry who don’t prioritize safety voluntarily would have implemented the CDC guidance and prevented these outbreaks of death and disease in meatpacking.”
A Smithfield worker in Missouri is suing the company in federal court for failing to take action to protect employees, including altering operations to permit social distancing and providing PPE, and discouraging employees from staying home while ill. A preliminary hearing has been set for later this week in the lawsuit, which does not name the worker who filed it. A judge has ordered Smithfield to comply with CDC and OSHA guidelines in the interim.