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