It was already clear that meatpacking plants hosted some of the country’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks. But it wasn’t all bad. congressional investigationLate October’s release revealed how dire the situation is. The COVID-19 infection and death toll in slaughterhouses run by the country’s largest meat conglomerates is now nearly three times higher than previously estimated. Considering the hazards cited by the report — crowded assembly lines, lax screening precautions, sweat-saturated masks and barriers made with “flimsy ‘plastic bags on frames’” — it’s little surprise that in some plants, more than half of workers have contracted the virus.
Emails obtained by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis investigation paint a picture of executives who aggressively pushed back against safety measures in the pandemic’s early days. The CEO of Smithfield Foods, for example, called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations “problematic” and lamented that touchless mask distribution would cause each employee to miss 30 seconds of work. Smithfield workers continued to work. were filing complaints that they were not spaced six feet apart, were denied breaks and couldn’t breathe through masks saturated with sweat. Others claimed that their production line was so fast. they weren’t able to turn away to cough. “If you’re not in a casket, they want you there,” former Smithfield worker Sonja Johnson told The Washington Post.
“The lack of care and the lack of interest in providing workers with the most basic protections by the companies is shocking,” said Magaly Licolli, director of an Arkansas-based poultry worker organization, in a recent Food Chain Workers Alliance reportFrontline worker organizing. “With this pandemic it’s about fighting or dying. There is no other option.”
According to October’s congressional investigation, the biggest meat conglomerates “prioritized profits and production over worker safety,” a practice that is unfortunately all too common in an industry that employs primarily BIPOC workers. Around 44 percent of workers in the animal slaughtering and processing industry nationwide are Latinx and 25 percent are BlackWhile more than half of meatpacking workers in frontline positions are immigrants, According to a CDC report 87 percent of meatpacking workers infected with COVID-19 in summer 2020 were racial or ethnic minorities. Iowa also had a study that found the following: only 18 percent of infected meatpacking workers were white.
Even before the pandemic began, meat processing plants were hazardous places to work. And while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — the federal agency responsible for ensuring workers’ safety — acknowledges the presence of hazards like noise, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, repetitive motions, hazardous chemicals and exposure to airborne pathogensIt provides limited protection in slaughterhouses against these dangers by its general standards, which are applicable across industries.
When it comes to air quality, in particular, OSHA has failed to develop standards for any sector — even though meat-processing facilities are notorious for spreading viruses due to temperature and humidity levels that encourage pathogens to thrive. OSHA also failed adopt standards to protect workers against musculoskeletal diseases, a very serious problem in the workplace. poultry industry. Instead, OSHA has largely developed “nonbinding guidance” for employers or unsuccessfully attempted to invoke the OSHA Act’s general duty clause — which requires employers to ensure the workplace is free of “recognized hazards.” It has generally been understood as a backstop in the absence of specifically applicable standards but is difficult for the agency to justify when challenged.
OSHA also issued “nonbinding guidance” during COVID-19 when, as the congressional investigation argues, it should have issued an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers. This resulted in meatpacking businesses being left unchecked. Investigators describe this as a “political decision” by OSHA leadership under former President Trump. Yet even under the Biden administration, the agency has still not implemented those sorely needed safety rules — or so many of the others that could help to curb the health hazards and injustices facing workers.
Joe Biden signed the Constitution on his first day as President executive order on advancing racial equity and claimed he would make racial equity and support for underserved communities “the business of the whole government.” Protecting marginalized workers must be central to this strategy for it to succeed. OSHA can now implement workplace protections in key sectors like meatpacking to address the disproportionate health effects and promote racial justice in industries that employ BIPOC workers, which were long ignored by binding regulations.
There are signs that things are improving, however. The Biden administration was inaugurated in September. announced new initiatives at OSHA to address heat hazards in the workplace — a dangerous issue that disproportionately impacts immigrant farmworkersOSHA has never established a national standard for this purpose. OSHA created a rulemaking process on October 27 to finally create such a standard, which will replace its previous “nonbinding guidance.”
This is a significant milestone in the right direction. It will save many lives. It is only the beginning of addressing the disproportionate effects of hazardous workplaces. Meat-processing workers deserve protection, too.
For years, slaughterhouse workers have been supported by their advocates. have been calling for a slowdown to increasing factory line speeds,These programs can make workers more vulnerable and bring them closer together. They’ve asked for strengthened inspection programs that address not only food safety, but worker safety, and allow workers to designate a representative to accompany inspectors. And they’ve demanded that their basic rights — to bathroom breaksTo leave work for medical and other emergencies. protection from retaliation when filing complaints — be respected. Federal legislation could address many of these longstanding issues and protect workers over time. OSHA might also be required by law to create emergency pandemic standards.
Advocates are also asking OSHA to keep a record on pandemic-related deaths, infections, and illnesses, including the racial makeup of those affected. Because — as October’s congressional investigation shows — lives are lost when companies aren’t held publicly accountable for protecting their workers. As long as these companies continue putting profits ahead of people, the federal government cannot afford to stand by and must take action to ensure safety, justice, equity, and justice for the workers on which our food system is dependent.