On April 15, 2020, the Smithfield Foods Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant became the No. 1 coronavirus hot spot in the U.S. with 761 positive tests.
Not the city of Sioux Falls. Not the state of South Dakota. The plant, all by itself.
Put another way: On that date, a workplace became the No. 1 source of virus cases in the country.
How’d it happen? What happened at other plants that had similar fates that led to more than 50 deaths?
Safety steps not taken
Investigations by federal agencies, such as the CDC, and local health officials, and reporting by media such as Forbes and The Washington Post lays out what happened.
Here are the factors that contributed to these workplaces becoming coronavirus hot spots:
- Lack of social distancing. The Sioux Falls plant is older, with employees working two feet from each other without plastic guards in between.
- Lack of masks. At several plants, health officials observed employees without face masks, or wearing insufficient ones.
- Work-while-sick culture. A local health official called out the Greeley, CO, JBS USA beef processing plant after employees said they were encouraged to come to work sick.
- Incentives sent wrong message. The JBS plant posted on its Facebook page that all employees who came to work on a particular day would receive five pounds of ground beef as they left work. Translated: Go to work, sick or not, get free food.
- Language barrier. At a Smithfield plant in South Dakota, workers were given packets about COVID-19 and safety – in English only. The CDC found 40 languages spoken at the plant. Reminder: OSHA requires safety training to be provided in languages employees understand.
Commonly known solutions
In each of the workplace hot spot cases, companies took steps to protect employees after the virus had already spread widely among their workforces.
The solutions won’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed the situation:
- social distancing (at least six feet)
- proper training about COVID-19 for employees, and
- plastic “sneeze guards” to protect employees who aren’t six feet apart.
Last but not least: This is where good safety cultures come into play. It’s simple. Safety first. No employee should feel they have to choose between risking their life and keeping their job.