Meat­pack­ing work­ers re­main at risk de­spite new mea­sures

Orlando Sentinel - - Day 73 - By Amy Forliti

MIN­NEAPO­LIS — Fed­eral rec­om­men­da­tions meant to keep meat­pack­ing work­ers safe as they re­turn to plants that were shut­tered by the coro­n­avirus have lit­tle en­force­ment mus­cle be­hind them, fu­el­ing anx­i­ety that work­ing con­di­tions could put em­ploy­ees’ lives at risk.

Ex­ten­sive guid­ance is­sued last month by the Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion rec­om­mends that meat­pack­ing com­pa­nies erect phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers, en­force so­cial dis­tanc­ing and in­stall more hand-san­i­tiz­ing sta­tions, among other steps. But the guid­ance is not manda­tory.

“It’s like, ‘Here’s what we’d like you to do. But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to,’ ” said Mark Lau­rit­sen, in­ter­na­tional vice pres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of the food pro­cess­ing and meat­pack­ing di­vi­sion for the United Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers In­ter­na­tional Union.

The pan­demic is “the most mas­sive work­ers’ safety cri­sis in many decades, and OSHA is in the closet,” said David Michaels, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist who was the agency’s as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of la­bor un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

Michaels called on OSHA to make the guide­lines manda­tory and en­force­able, which would in­clude the threat of fines.

OSHA’s gen­eral guid­ance plainly says the rec­om­men­da­tions are ad­vi­sory and “not a stan­dard or reg­u­la­tion,” and they cre­ate “no new le­gal obli­ga­tions.”

But the guid­ance also says em­ploy­ers must fol­low a law known as the gen­eral duty clause, which re­quires com­pa­nies to pro­vide a work­place free of rec­og­nized haz­ards. Crit­ics say that rule is un­likely to be en­forced, es­pe­cially af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der in April aimed at keep­ing meat plants open.

Af­ter the ex­ec­u­tive or­der — de­vel­oped with in­put from the in­dus­try — the La­bor De­part­ment and OSHA said OSHA would use dis­cre­tion and con­sider “good-faith at­tempts” to fol­low safety rec­om­men­da­tions. Em­ploy­ers would be given a chance to ex­plain if some are not met.

Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Sonny Per­due made clear in let­ters ear­lier this month the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture ex­pected state and lo­cal of­fi­cials to work with meat plants to keep them run­ning. He said any closed plants with­out a timetable to re­open had to sub­mit pro­to­cols to the USDA.

The USDA did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests to pro­vide those com­pany plans to the As­so­ci­ated Press. When asked how guide­lines would be en­forced, a USDA spokesper­son said en­force­ment was up to OSHA.

Ma­jor meat­pack­ers JBS, Smith­field and Tyson have said worker safety is their high­est pri­or­ity. They pro­vided the AP with sum­maries of their ef­forts to im­prove safety, but the plans them­selves have not been made pub­lic.

Tyson said be­cause the tem­po­rary sus­pen­sion of its op­er­a­tions was vol­un­tary and the com­pany was al­ready meet­ing or ex­ceed­ing fed­eral guid­ance, it was not re­quired to sub­mit a re­open­ing plan to the USDA.

In an emailed re­sponse to ques­tions about how guid­ance would be en­forced and what role OSHA would play in pro­tect­ing work­ers, the De­part­ment of La­bor said OSHA re­ceived 55 com­plaints in the an­i­mal-pro­cess­ing in­dus­try and opened 22 in­spec­tions since Feb. 1.

Michaels, the for­mer OSHA of­fi­cial, said the gen­eral duty clause has no pre­ven­tive ef­fect and is gen­er­ally en­forced only af­ter a worker is in­jured. He said it’s ef­fec­tive only in cases in which OSHA con­ducts an in­spec­tion and is­sues ci­ta­tions and the em­ployer agrees to fix the prob­lem — so any im­pact is felt months or years later.

Michaels said OSHA will not is­sue ci­ta­tions if em­ploy­ers are do­ing their best to elim­i­nate a haz­ard but find it’s not fea­si­ble.

Jef­frey Lan­caster, founder and CEO of Lan­caster Safety Con­sult­ing in Wex­ford, Penn­syl­va­nia, said vi­o­la­tions of the gen­eral duty clause can get ex­pen­sive, es­pe­cially if com­pa­nies are re­peat vi­o­la­tors, have a will­ful vi­o­la­tion or fail to fix an is­sue.

MICHAEL CON­ROY/AP

The safety of meat­pack­ing work­ers re­mains a con­cern as new mea­sures meant to pro­tect them aren’t manda­tory.

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