Following a report that identified “gaps in OSHA’s oversight and tracking of its adapted enforcement methods” during the pandemic, a U.S. House subcommittee is looking into how that impacted the meatpacking industry.
The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is looking into whether OSHA failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety regulations at meatpacking plants.
In a letter to interim OSHA administrator James Frederick, it’s noted nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the U.S. have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 270 have died.
The letter also notes at least 45 facilities owned by JBS, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and Cargill have had 50 or more confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The subcommittee also calls out some of the companies for “callous disregard for the health of their workers.”
Example: Tyson managers and supervisors at an Iowa plant allegedly organized a betting pool to wager on how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.
The county health department where the plant is located reported more than 1,000 Tyson workers contracted the virus and at least five died.
After investigating the allegations, Tyson fired seven plant managers.
The subcommittee’s letter contends OSHA failed to protect meatpacking workers during the pandemic.
“A swift and forceful response from OSHA could have led meatpacking companies to adopt stronger safety measures, preventing outbreaks and saving lives,” the letter states.
What should OSHA have done differently? The letter suggests higher fines related to coronavirus violations.
Example: OSHA cited Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, SD, for “failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus.” At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted the virus and four died.
The fine issued: $13,494 for one violation.
The subcommittee says if OSHA had cited four distinct actions Smithfield failed to take and categorized them as willful, the penalty to the plant could have been $2.7 million.
GAO: Concerns about safety oversight
The subcommittee’s concerns are partially based on what’s been reported in another document.
As part of a 346-page report on the federal government’s overall response to the pandemic, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) “identified concerns about federal oversight of worker safety and health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The GAO says OSHA’s COVID-19 enforcement methods “contain gaps in oversight and tracking.”
Although OSHA published its oversight policy in spring 2020, it’s yet to be implemented.
The GAO report and subcommittee investigation both put pressure on OSHA to step up its game during the pandemic.