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Federal regulators knew about serious safety problems in dozens of the nation's meat plants that became deadly coronavirus hot spots this spring but took six months to act, recently citing two plants and finally requiring changes to protect workers.
The financial penalties for a Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota and a JBS plant in Colorado issued last week total about $29,000 - an amount critics said was so small that it would fail to serve as an incentive for the nation's meatpackers to take measures to protect employees.
Meat plant workers, union leaders and worker safety groups are also outraged that the two plants, with some of the most severe outbreaks in the nation, were only cited for a total of three safety violations and that hundreds of other meat plants have faced no fines. The companies criticized federal regulators for taking so long to give guidance on how to keep workers safe.
At least 42,534 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the coronavirus in 494 meat plants, and at least 203 meatpacking workers have died since March, according to an analysis by the Food Environmental Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.
In Iowa, outbreaks were reported earlier this year at plants in Columbus Junction, Tama, Waterloo, Perry and Sioux Center. An outbreak also was reported at a plant in Nebraska that's the Sioux City area's largest employer.
Iowa's state OSHA inspectors visited the Waterloo pork processing plant on April 20 and said they found no violations. But days later, an outbreak forced the plant to close for two days.
Research by the Associated Press found earlier this summer that at least six deaths were tied to the outbreaks at Iowa meatpacking plants.
At the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., 1,294 have tested positive for the coronavirus and four have died. At the JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colo., 290 have tested positive and six died.
Smithfield last year had revenue of nearly $14 billion. JBS - the largest meatpacker in the world - had $51.7 billion in revenue. Both companies, which operate internationally, said the citations are 'without merit” and will be contested, and that they have already made safety improvements.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the plants failed to provide a workplace 'free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees in that employees were working in close proximity to each other and were exposed to” the coronavirus.
The citations also said the companies 'did not develop or implement timely and effective measures to mitigate exposures.”
In addition to improving distancing between employees, OSHA ordered the companies to erect barriers between the workers when that isn't possible. With Smithfield, OSHA said the plant needed to slow processing line speeds 'to enable employees to stand farther apart.”
The companies, worker safety groups and meat plant workers criticized OSHA for how long it took the agency to complete investigations of the plants.
'Where were they when people were getting sick and were hospitalized? When people were dying?” asked Debbie Berkowitz, a worker-safety expert with the nonprofit National Employment Law Project. 'Just think about how many lives could have been saved and how many people may not have gotten sick.”
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said he believes the sudden issuance of citations, months after the plants were spiking with coronavirus cases, is motivated by the upcoming presidential election.
'They checked out and turned a blind eye to this for months. The Trump administration made these decisions to not step in and help workers,” Perrone said. 'Now they are trying to look like they are doing their job so they can cover themselves politically. People in this country remember the horror of what happened to these workers.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Of the nearly 10,000 COVID-19-related requests OSHA received to investigate workplaces in all industries since early March, Smithfield and JBS are the only ones that have so far resulted in a citation and fine. Unrelated to the complaints, OSHA has issued six other COVID-19-related citations and fines for industries other than the meat industry, which resulted from routine reports the agency received from hospitals and employers about workers being hospitalized or fatally injured, records show.
The massive coronavirus outbreaks at meat plants - and the lack of masks and social distancing that fueled the disease - has been widely reported by media since March and April.
Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield, criticized OSHA, saying the agency was slow to issue guidance to meatpackers, adding, 'Despite this fact, we figured it out on our own.”
She also said the company 'simultaneously and repeatedly urged OSHA to commit the time and resources to visit our operations in March and April. They did not do so.”
JBS also was critical of OSHA's response to the pandemic, saying the agency did not provide guidance until late April on ways to remedy safety problems that would have prevented the spread of the coronavirus in plants.
'The OSHA citation ... attempts to impose a standard that did not exist in March as we fought the pandemic with no guidance,” JBS said in a statement. 'Every proposed abatement in the citation was implemented months ago in Greeley. These abatements would have been informative in February. Today, they don't even meet our internal standards.”
The North American Meat Institute in a statement also criticized 'inconsistent and sometimes tardy government advice” and said the industry quickly took steps to protect workers when the virus hit in March. It also said confirmed cases of COVID-19 among plant workers have dropped significantly in recent months because of measures taken in the plants.
In response to the criticism, OSHA said that its investigative process is 'exhaustive” and that it met legal mandates since it has 'a six month statute of limitations to complete any investigation and issue a citation.” In response to Smithfield's statement, OSHA also said, 'The risks and precautions needed were well-known at the time and Smithfield did not address them in a timely manner.”
OSHA also defended itself by saying it issued the maximum amount allowed under the law - $13,494 - for citations for a serious violation. Each company received that, and JBS also received a fine of $2,121 for an 'other-than-serious” violation.
However, critics said their problem was not with the dollar amount for a single violation; their frustration is that the agency cited only one serious violation for each plant. OSHA declined further comment on the fine amounts.