OSHA, CDC Lay Out Blueprint For Meat Plant Worker Safety

By Vin Gurrieri
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Law360 (April 27, 2020, 11:56 AM EDT) -- Meatpacking plants should be reconfigured to keep workers at least six feet apart even if it means upending long-standing production practices, according to new federal guidance aimed at an industry besieged by a recent surge in coronavirus infections and plant closures.

In a joint guidance issued Sunday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested numerous precautions that food processors can take to protect workers in meatpacking plants, who often work in close quarters, from being exposed to COVID-19.

A Tyson Fresh Meats plant employee leaves the Logansport, Indiana, plant on Thursday. The federal government has issued new guidance intended to protect workers in the meat processing industry from the novel coronavirus. (AP)

A significant part of the agencies' new guidance focused on the physical environment in those plants, calling on employers to modify their layout if possible so that workers are adequately spaced out — even when they take breaks or clock in and out — and aren't facing each other on production lines. Plant operators should also consider erecting physical partitions like Plexiglass between workers and limit their use of personal cooling fans to prevent the spread of the virus, according to the agencies' guidance.

Moreover, employers should appoint monitors to ensure that social distancing rules are being followed, stagger workers' break times and start times so they don't all crowd areas like bathrooms or parking lots, and appoint a "qualified workplace coordinator" to oversee all of the plant's coronavirus mitigation efforts, the guidance said.

Loren Sweatt, OSHA's principal deputy assistant secretary, said in a statement Sunday that the guidance "outlines steps employers can take to provide a safe and healthy workplace for workers in the meatpacking and processing industries."

"As essential workers, those in the meatpacking and processing industries need to be protected from coronavirus for their own safety and health," Sweatt said.

On a call last week with reporters, Sweatt said the U.S. Department of Labor received about 2,400 coronavirus-related complaints from the start of February through April 20 and has resolved about 1,400 of them.

Besides physical alterations to the worksite and administrative policy changes, the new OSHA and CDC guidance recommended that employers regularly sanitize any tools that workers share, train workers about how they can reduce the spread of COVID-19, encourage them to wear cloth masks and institute leave policies that encourage them to stay home if they are sick, among other suggestions.

The new guidance comes as outbreaks of the virus have ravaged some food processing plants in recent weeks, causing them to close or severely scale back production. One company, Smithfield Foods, was hit with a federal lawsuit last week alleging it put workers at a Missouri processing facility in harm's way by forcing them to work too closely to one another without giving them proper protective gear or enough time to wash their hands.

Another company, Tyson Foods, has issued numerous press releases over the past several weeks detailing its struggle to combat COVID-19. Among the interruptions to its usual course of business, Tyson Foods was forced to pause production at a beef facility in Pasco, Washington, and indefinitely suspend production at a pork facility in Waterloo, Iowa, the company's largest pork plant, for virus-related reasons.

John Tyson, the company's chairman, took out a full-page ad Sunday in The New York Times and several other major newspapers stressing the importance the company places on the well-being of its workers while also warning that America's food supply chain "is breaking" amid the pandemic and that meat shortages are on the horizon.

While Tyson highlighted a wide range of measures his company has taken to protect workers — including social distancing in the workplace, temperature screenings, relaxed attendance policies and plant closures — he also said the government at all levels "must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic or worry."

"As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain," Tyson said in the ad. "As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed."

The issue of America's food supply was also the subject of a joint, bipartisan letter that Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sent Friday to Attorney General William Barr and the heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

The senators asked that the agencies probe the causes of what they called "troubling vulnerabilities" in the food supply chain that have been brought to the forefront by the pandemic so that measures can be taken to address them.

"We ask that each of you, in your respective capacities, investigate the vulnerabilities in these markets that have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and identify areas of concern, regulations that can be modified or relaxed, any verifiable antitrust violations, and/or structural changes in the trading market to help ensure that our country's food markets work for consumers, as well as our farmers, ranchers, and packers," the senators said in their letter.

Lee chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy & Consumer Rights, and Klobuchar is the subcommittee's ranking member.

Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers union last week urged the Trump administration to take a handful of steps to safeguard meatpacking and food processing workers, noting that more than a dozen such workers have died as of April 23 and that at least 13 plants employing tens of thousands of workers have closed at some point over the past two months.

In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, the union called for prioritizing meatpacking and food processing workers for COVID-19 testing, ensuring their access to personal protective equipment and isolating those who are symptomatic or test positive for the virus.

The union also said the USDA should be prevented from issuing regulatory waivers that allow companies to increase their maximum line speed and called on the federal government to impose social distancing mandates on plant operators "to the greatest extent possible, even if this means production slows down."

"America's food processing and meatpacking workers are in extreme danger, and our nation's food supply faces a direct threat from the coronavirus outbreak," said Marc Perrone, UFCW's international president, in an April 23 statement.

"If workers in these plants are as essential as our elected leaders say, then it's about time that our elected leaders provide them with the essential protections they need," Perrone added. "Make no mistake, without national safety standards to protect these workers from the coronavirus — more lives will be lost, more workers will be exposed, and our food supply will face jeopardy."

--Additional reporting by Braden Campbell and Adam Lidgett. Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

Update: This story has been updated with additional details and commentary.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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