The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is facing allegations that it failed to enforce worker safety laws at meatpacking plants during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, the chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Rep. James E. Clyburn, sent a letter to OSHA, JBS USA, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson Foods as part of a new investigation into COVID outbreaks in US meatpacking plants.
“Public reports indicate that under the Trump administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” Chairman Clyburn said in a release announcing the start of the effort.
More than 57,000 meatpacking workers have contracted the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic as of February 3, according to data gathered by the Food & Environment Reporting Network. 278 of those workers died as a result of their illness. The CDC issued a report in July 2020 stating that meat and poultry plants have a number of “distinctive factors” that increase workers’ risk of exposure to the coronavirus, like long periods of close contact with coworkers, common workspaces, and shared transportation.
OSHA issued eight citations to meatpacking plants for coronavirus-related violations during the Trump administration, with under $80,000 in penalties issued, according to the select subcommittee. Smithfield Foods was fined $13,494 after 1,294 workers at its Sioux Falls, SD facility became infected with COVID and four workers died.
“[I]n the last year, OSHA failed to issue enforceable rules, respond in a timely manner to complaints, and issue meaningful fines when a company’s unsafe practices led to the deaths of employees,” said Chairman Clyburn.
The select subcommittee’s letters to the companies and the agency request documents related to COVID infections and deaths at meatpacking plants and the enforcement of worker protections during the Trump administration.
OSHA issued stronger COVID-19-related worker safety guidance in late January after President Biden directed the agency to release clear guidance for employers to help keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure.