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Tina Casey headshot

Under COVID-19, Worker Safety Issues Leap Beyond Factory Gates

By Tina Casey

Worker safety in the U.S. was suffering from a slowdown in enforcement before the COVID-19 outbreak, and now it is cracking under the strain. In the latest development, the meatpacking industry has become a hotspot of infection, leading to plant closures and a ripple effect on livestock farmers and the nation’s food supply.

Meatpackers at high risk from COVID-19

Ominous signs in the meatpacking industry bubbled up earlier this month, when COVID-19 outbreaks began to emerge among workers. By April 22, infections had broken out in dozens of plants across the country.

The problem is partly related to the particular work environment in the meatpacking industry. Unlike other factories and food production facilities, meatpacking plants are not dominated by robots and automated machines. Human hands do much of the work, and employees are placed in close proximity along assembly lines.

In terms of COVID-19 transmission, the proximity factor can be exacerbated by long shifts of up to 10 or even 12 hours.

Another factor is the industry’s longstanding reputation for unsafe conditions, including the use of hazardous chemicals. In 2005, a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that “the increasing volume and speed of production coupled with close quarters, poor training and insufficient safeguards” contribute to poor health among meatpacking workers, potentially putting them at higher risk for COVID-19 impacts.

As recently as September 2019, HRW drew attention to conditions in the meatpacking industry, stating that “these workers have some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the United States.”

Further complicating the situation is the location of major meatpacking operations in states that have failed to respond aggressively to the outbreak.

For example, one of the first major COVID-19 hotspots to emerge was at a Smithfield pork processing plant in South Dakota. The state has yet to issue any stay-at-home orders, even though the plant was closed earlier this month after almost 450 workers were infected. Similar circumstances leading to closures have occurred at plants that Tyson Foods and JBS operate.

The result has been a perfect storm of disease transmission. Meatpacking workers are at constant risk of exposure to COVID-19 both inside the factory and in their communities as well — and in turn, these workers can also become vectors in communities that are not strictly observing social distance precautions.

Reporters Dianne Gallagher and Pamela Kirkland of CNN took a deep dive into the issue on April 27 and noted that at least 13 processing plants have closed in recent weeks, reducing the nation’s pork and beef slaughter capacity by 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The poultry industry has also been hit hard by this pandemic.

Gallagher and Kirkland also concluded that the problem will likely become cyclical as factories reopen without adequate testing and protection, only to experience another outbreak.

Pleading for leadership on COVID-19

Last weekend the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control finally issued “interim” COVID-19 guidance for the meatpacking industry and its workers.

In a press release dated April 26, the two agencies explained that “close contact with coworkers and supervisors may contribute” to worker exposure.

However, the OSHA-CDC guidance relies partly on social distancing in the workplace, which is ineffective unless meatpacking plants are modified to accommodate far fewer workers.

In addition, the guidance also relies on screening and protective equipment, two areas in which a lackluster federal response caught the nation as a whole almost completely unprepared to respond effectively. Until an efficient system of testing and contact tracing is established, meatpacking plants are at greater risk of infection.

Coincidentally or not, over the weekend Tyson also issued a public statement. It placed a full page advertisement in the New York Times and other leading publications, warning that the nation’s food supply chain is vulnerable and is, in fact, breaking.

Though Tyson did not go so far as to claim that the nation will actually run out of meat, the company did state that "there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

More to the point, Tyson pleaded for national unity on COVID-19 response.

“The government bodies at the national, state, county and city levels must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic or worry,” the company stated.

“The private and public sectors must come together. As a country, this is our time to show the world what we can do when working together,” Tyson added.

Where is the leadership?

That’s quite an ask, considering that the President has been working diligently in the opposite direction. In addition to failing to prepare a national healthcare and prevention plan in advance of the outbreak, failing to organize a medical supply chain, and ignoring the guidance of epidemiologists and public health professionals, he has also feuded with governors over stay-at-home orders, encouraged protestors to violate stay-at-home orders, and forced states to compete against each other — and the federal government — for scarce supplies.

As for the public and private sectors working together, the president failed to exercise his authority under the Defense Production Act in a timely manner before the outbreak took hold, forcing CEOs like GM’s Mary Barra to plot their own course.

In this context, it’s worth nothing that Tyson did adopt a number of COVID-19 response measures long before OSHA and CDC issued any public guidance.

The company began its efforts as early as January, with the establishment of a COVID-19 task force. It continued to step up its efforts in the following months. The outbreaks occurred regardless, at Tyson and elsewhere in the meatpacking industry.

As Tyson itself makes the case, clearly individual corporations are no substitute for a coordinated federal response that engages the public at every level in a common cause.

Nevertheless, the President’s response to the meat situation has been, well, predictable.

After failing to take action earlier this month, yesterday evening the President was reportedly expected to sign an executive order compelling meatpacking plants to remain in operation, while absolving them of liability for workers who contract COVID-19.

The President reportedly worked with Tyson on the order. If that is so, it will be interesting to see if the order is consistent with the company’s public statement of just a few days ago.

Weve remained true to our core values, especially by continuing our focus on providing a safe work environment for our team members,” Tyson’s statement concluded.

Corporations plan, but COVID-19 decides

Liability or not, it is unclear if any meatpacking plants will be able to function consistently in regions where members of the public fail to practice social distancing, putting workers at risk for new waves of infection in their communities.

Worker ranks may also be thinned in consideration of employees who have underlying medical conditions or other risk factors, or those who live in households with at-risk residents.

Until the President puts COVID-19 response in the hands of experienced professionals, Tyson and other companies — and their workers — will face an uncertain future.

Image credit: Pexels

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey