Sunday July 5th, 2020 12:46PM

Meatpacking safety recommendations are largely unenforceable

By The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Federal recommendations meant to keep meatpacking workers safe as they return to plants that were shuttered by the coronavirus have little enforcement muscle behind them, fueling anxiety that working conditions could put employees' lives at risk.

Extensive guidance issued last month by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that meatpacking companies erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations, among other steps. But the guidance is not mandatory.

“It’s like, ‘Here’s what we’d like you to do. But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to,’” said Mark Lauritsen, international vice president and director of the food processing and meatpacking division for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

The pandemic is “the most massive workers’ safety crisis in many decades, and OSHA is in the closet. OSHA is hiding,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who was the agency's assistant secretary of labor under President Barack Obama. Michaels called on OSHA to make the guidelines mandatory and enforceable, which would include the threat of fines.

OSHA’s general guidance plainly says the recommendations are advisory and “not a standard or regulation," and they create "no new legal obligations.”

But the guidance also says employers must follow a law known as the general duty clause, which requires companies to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. Critics say that rule is unlikely to be enforced, especially after President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April aimed at keeping meat plants open.

Already, examples have emerged of questionable enforcement efforts and pressure to keep plants running:

— Shortly before Trump's order, state regulators in Iowa declined to inspect a Tyson Foods pork plant despite a complaint alleging workers had been exposed to the virus in crowded conditions. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show Iowa's OSHA agency took 2 1/2 weeks to contact Tyson, get a response and conclude that the company's voluntary efforts to improve social distancing at the Perry plant were “satisfactory." Within a week later, 730 workers — almost 60% of the workforce — had tested positive.

— In Kansas, the state softened its quarantine guidelines after industry executives pushed to allow potentially exposed employees to continue going to work, according to emails and text messages obtained by The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle. The state had previously advised such employees to quarantine for two weeks, before conforming to the more lenient CDC guideline, which allows employees to continue working if they have no symptoms and use precautions. The move came after Tyson raised a concern with the state of rising worker absenteeism.

After Trump's executive order — developed with input from the industry — the Labor Department and OSHA said OSHA would use discretion and consider “good faith attempts” to follow safety recommendations. Employers would be given a chance to explain if some are not met. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made clear in letters earlier this month that the Department of Agriculture expected state and local officials to work with meat plants to keep them running. And he said any closed plants without a timetable to reopen had to submit protocols to the USDA.

The USDA did not respond to repeated requests to provide those company plans to the AP. When asked how guidelines would be enforced, a USDA spokesperson said enforcement was up to OSHA.

Major meatpackers JBS, Smithfield and Tyson have said worker safety is their highest priority. They provided the AP with summaries of their efforts to improve safety, but the plans themselves have not been made public. Tyson said because the temporary suspension of its operations was voluntary and the company was already meeting or exceeding federal guidance, it was not required to submit a reopening plan to the USDA.

One plan obtained by the AP, for the reopening of a JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota, details multiple safety improvements, including installing physical barriers, increasing spacing between workers and requiring protective equipment. The plan includes photos. It says employees will be screened for health issues, but it makes no mention of requiring testing.

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said the plan “demonstrates the extraordinary measures” the plant has taken "to keep our team members safe as they provide food for the country.”

In an emailed response to questions about how guidance would be enforced and what role OSHA would play in protecting workers, the Department of Labor said OSHA received 55 complaints in the animal-processing industry and opened 22 inspections since Feb. 1.

Echoing language from the general duty clause, the agency also noted longstanding rules that require employers to provide a safe workplace.

“OSHA’s standards remain in place and enforceable, and they will continue to be as workers return to their workplaces,” a labor spokesperson said.

Michaels, the former OSHA official, said the clause has no preventive effect and is generally enforced only after a worker is injured. He said it's effective only in cases in which OSHA conducts an inspection and issues citations and the employer agrees to fix the problem — so any impact is felt months or years later.

Michaels said OSHA will not issue citations if employers are doing their best to eliminate a hazard but find it's not feasible.

Jeffrey Lancaster, founder and CEO of Lancaster Safety Consulting in Wexford, Pennsylvania, said violations of the general duty clause can get expensive, especially if companies are found to be repeat violators, have a willful violation, or fail to fix an issue.

“The laws have been in place,” he said. “It’s just a new ballgame – a new hazard.”

Minnesota is one of 22 states or territories with worker-protection agencies that cover private and government workers, and the state OSHA has the power to enforce the CDC and state Department of Health's COVID-19 safety guidelines under the general duty clause, spokesman James Honerman said.

The agency has two open investigations into the meatpacking businesses — one at a JBS plant in Worthington and one at a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Cold Spring, said Honerman, who could not discuss the investigations because they are pending.

Lauritsen, with the food workers' union, said OSHA has not done enough to hold employers accountable. The union is advocating for access to daily testing for all meat-production workers, personal protective equipment if necessary and paid sick leave.

“By and large, if our members are healthy enough, if they are not sick or on quarantine, they are going to show up to do their job,” Lauritsen said. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re not anxious or not nervous.”

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top General short headlines, AP Business, AP Business - Industries, AP Business - Agriculture
© Copyright 2020 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Cyclone left deaths, much destruction in India, Bangladesh
A powerful cyclone that slammed into coastal India and Bangladesh has left damage difficult to assess Thursday and about 20 deaths
12:24AM ( 9 minutes ago )
Little Richard laid to rest at Alabama alma mater
Little Richard has been laid to rest at his alma mater in north Alabama
12:16AM ( 17 minutes ago )
Trump threatens funds for states easing voting in pandemic
President Donald Trump has threatened to hold back federal funding from two election battleground states that are making it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic
12:14AM ( 19 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
Michigan dam had repeated safety violations before flooding
A hydroelectric dam that failed to hold back floodwaters this week in Michigan was the target of lengthy investigations by federal regulators
11:43PM ( 50 minutes ago )
Pandemic knocks out large sections of Hawaii's economy
The coronavirus pandemic is taking out large sections of Hawaii's economy
11:38PM ( 56 minutes ago )
Hamlin scores 2nd win of season at rain-shortened Darlington
Denny Hamlin won NASCAR’s first Wednesday race since 1984 when rain stopped the event with 20 laps remaining at Darlington Raceway
11:29PM ( 1 hour ago )
AP National News
AP-NORC poll: Americans harbor strong fear of new infections
A new poll finds that strong concern about a second wave of coronavirus infections is reinforcing widespread opposition among Americans to reopening public places
7:29PM ( 5 hours ago )
Trump considering hosting G-7 summit in US after all
President Donald Trump says he's considering holding a meeting in the U.S. with leaders of the world's major economies after all
7:03PM ( 5 hours ago )
Largest yet: $1.3 billion contract for border wall awarded
A North Dakota construction company favored by President Donald Trump has received the largest contract to date to build a section of Trump’s signature wall along the U.S.-Mexico border
6:50PM ( 5 hours ago )
AP Online National News
Democrats decry 'pandemic of pollution' under Trump's EPA
Democrats are blasting the Trump administration’s moves to roll back environmental regulations during the coronavirus crisis
3:49PM ( 8 hours ago )
Graduation ceremonies draw thousands despite pandemic fears
High schools nationwide have canceled or postponed traditional graduation ceremonies to avoid worsening the spread of the new coronavirus
3:47PM ( 8 hours ago )
Fabled 'Snyder Cut' of 'Justice League' to be released
For several years, the slogan “Release the Snyder cut” has reverberated online as a rallying cry both genuine and ironic — a “Vive la revolution” for comic book movie fans
3:39PM ( 8 hours ago )
Top General short headlines
The Latest: Japan ending state of emergency in 3 prefectures
Japan’s economy minister says experts have approved a government plan to remove a coronavirus state of emergency in Osaka and two neighboring prefectures in the west where the infection is deemed slowing, while keeping the measure in place in the Tokyo region and Hokkaido
11:08PM ( 1 hour ago )
Asia Today: Australia lets woman travel to see dying sister
A New Zealand woman has been reunited with her dying sister in Australia after gaining an exemption from pandemic travel restrictions on compassionate grounds
10:29PM ( 2 hours ago )
China focused on jobs as national legislature meets
As job losses surge, China is joining the United States and other governments in rolling out stimulus spending to revive its virus-battered economy
10:19PM ( 2 hours ago )
AP Business
Regional Fed chief: A slow rebound would boost loan program
The president of a regional Federal Reserve bank that will oversee a groundbreaking business lending program said he thinks a slower-than-expected recovery from the economic downturn would lead companies to seek critical support from the program
4:28PM ( 8 hours ago )
Stocks close higher as investors regain some more confidence
Stocks posted solid gains on Wall Street Wednesday, erasing their losses from a day earlier
4:09PM ( 8 hours ago )
Stocks head higher on Wall Street a day after a late slide
Stocks are broadly higher in afternoon trading on Wall Street as investors regain their confidence following a sudden drop a day earlier
3:16PM ( 9 hours ago )
AP Business - Industries
The Latest: Netherlands extends support package for business
The Dutch government has extended and expanded a multibillion-dollar support package for businesses hit by the coronavirus crisis
9:37AM ( 14 hours ago )
The Latest: British PM Johnson aims for more tests, trackers
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the U.K. will have a “test, track and trace” system for the coronavirus in place by June 1
8:35AM ( 15 hours ago )
Kroger says isn't pulling back bonuses; airlines see uptick
Kroger Co. says it isn’t asking any employees to pay back coronavirus-related bonuses
7:34PM ( 1 day ago )
AP Business - Agriculture
Cyclone left deaths, much destruction in India, Bangladesh
A powerful cyclone that slammed into coastal India and Bangladesh has left damage difficult to assess Thursday and about 20 deaths
12:24AM ( 9 minutes ago )
Little Richard laid to rest at Alabama alma mater
Little Richard has been laid to rest at his alma mater in north Alabama
12:16AM ( 17 minutes ago )
Trump threatens funds for states easing voting in pandemic
President Donald Trump has threatened to hold back federal funding from two election battleground states that are making it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic
12:14AM ( 19 minutes ago )
Michigan dam had repeated safety violations before flooding
A hydroelectric dam that failed to hold back floodwaters this week in Michigan was the target of lengthy investigations by federal regulators
11:43PM ( 50 minutes ago )
Pandemic knocks out large sections of Hawaii's economy
The coronavirus pandemic is taking out large sections of Hawaii's economy
11:38PM ( 56 minutes ago )