As an early hot spot for the coronavirus, Smithfield Foods is under fire for how it handled spread of the virus in the company. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus. OSHA proposed a penalty of $13,494 — the maximum allowed by law. However, one agriculture group doesn’t agree with the penalty.
“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” said OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”
Based on a coronavirus-related inspection, OSHA cited the company for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm. At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted coronavirus, and four employees died from the virus in the spring of 2020.
OSHA guidance details proactive measures employers can take to protect workers from the coronavirus, such as social distancing measures and the use of physical barriers, face shields, and face coverings when employees are unable to physically distance at least 6 feet from each other. OSHA guidance also advises that employers should provide safety and health information through training, visual aids, and other means to communicate important safety warnings in a language their workers understand.
Smithfield has 15 business days from receipt of the citation and penalty to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
The North American Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts said, “While the meat and poultry industry remains vigilant working with many government agencies to stop the spread of COVID-19, OSHA engages in revisionism.
“The meat and poultry industry’s first priority is the safety of the men and women who work in their facilities. Notwithstanding inconsistent and sometimes tardy government advice, (‘don’t wear a mask/wear a mask’/April 26 OSHA guidance specific to the meat and poultry industry) when the pandemic hit in mid-March, meat and poultry processing companies quickly and diligently took steps to protect their workers. Companies had to overcome challenges associated with limited personal protective equipment, they implemented screening systems to keep sick employees out of plants, developed COVID-19 plans with administrative and engineering controls to protect workers which included and but were not limited to the CDC/OSHA guidelines.
“Most importantly, as evidenced in trends in data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network and The New York Times, these many programs and controls once in place worked and continue to work. Positive cases of COVID-19 associated with meat and poultry companies are trending down compared with cases nationwide.”