IOWA CITY, Iowa — Safety regulators declined to inspect an Iowa pork plant after receiving a complaint alleging workers were exposed to the coronavirus in crowded conditions — a decision that critics said allowed a burgeoning outbreak to grow unabated.
An April 11 complaint to the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged that employees at the Tyson Foods processing plant in Perry, Iowa, were spreading the virus as they worked “elbow to elbow.” The complaint asserted that social distancing wasn’t taking place in any of the production areas or the cafeteria.
Workers and regulators had reason to be alarmed. The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction had been idled days earlier due to a coronavirus outbreak that infected hundreds of workers and was rerouting some of its hogs to Perry for slaughter. Other meat plants nationwide were reporting outbreaks and closures.
But Iowa OSHA took nine days to seek a response from Tyson, and eight more to get one, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law. The agency determined April 28 that Tyson’s voluntary efforts were “satisfactory” and closed the case without inspecting the plant.
State Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Waterloo Democrat, said Monday that the agency’s handling of the complaint failed vulnerable workers who were facing a choice between risking their health and keeping their jobs.
“It’s shameful when you think about the amount of people that have become additionally infected,” Dotzler said. “They should have been in there and taken a look at what was going on, instead of asking an offender if they did something wrong.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds asserted April 17 that Iowa OSHA was being proactive in protecting meatpacking workers and that “all complaints are being investigated.”
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She said Monday that she didn’t know how the Tyson complaint was handled but that state employees are working hard to protect residents.
“But, you know, there are times we fall short,” she said. “If that’s the case and we can do better, we’re going to do better.”
A week after OSHA closed its file, the Iowa Department of Public Health announced May 5 that 730 workers at the Perry plant had tested positive for the coronavirus — 58% of its 1,250 employees.
The failure to investigate showed “complete contempt” for workers and allowed the virus to continue spreading, said Perry native Jorge Soto, 23.
“I find it very disappointing,” said Soto, who said government intervention could have prevented infections and growing anxiety in the city of 7,500.
An aide to Iowa Commissioner of Labor Rod Roberts said the complaint was handled in accordance with interim federal guidance that said routine complaints of coronavirus exposure would “not normally result in an on-site inspection,” in part to protect inspectors.
An Iowa OSHA document listed the reason for not inspecting the Perry plant as “COVID-19.”
Soto started a Facebook page April 23 to advocate for workers in Perry and give them a platform to voice their concerns. His aunt, a longtime employee in her 50s, started showing symptoms days later and has been hospitalized since. Her condition has improved but she still has an abnormal amount of liquid in her lungs, he said.
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Nine days after getting the complaint, an Iowa OSHA official called Tyson and sent a letter the same day requesting a response within a week, records show.
Plant manager Mike Grothe responded in a letter received April 28 that acknowledged social distancing was difficult in food plants but that Tyson implemented “creative solutions.” He said the plant was installing partitions to separate workers on the production line and supplying face masks beginning April 23.
Grothe’s letter didn’t mention that Tyson workers were summoned to the plant for mass testing April 25 or that it would suspend production that week while awaiting results. He repeated Tyson’s claim that it was “making every effort to ensure the safety of its team members and protect the country’s food supply.”
“We also want to thank you for your efforts to keep our community, and our Tyson team members who live and/or work here, safe, particularly during this unprecedented time,” he told Iowa OSHA.
The matter was closed the same day.
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