- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) signed a two-year agreement to give the group's members, the meatpacking workforce and the public "information, guidance and access to training resources that will help them protect workers."
- The alliance said it will share information among OSHA personnel about potential exposure to COVID-19, distribute resources on best practices, conduct outreach and encourage the industry to build relationships with OSHA's regional and area offices.
- But Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, called the deal "an outrage." In a statement, he said: "Throughout the pandemic, employers have continued to keep workers and the general public in the dark about illness in the plants while trying to shield themselves from any liability for the role they played in the loss of life. It is shocking that the Department of Labor is now giving the meat industry even more power to police itself on worker safety."
As meatpacking plants have become hot spots for the coronavirus, companies have been placed in the hot seat for how they are handling the issue. Working shoulder to shoulder in the plants, the virus spread quickly among employees, infecting thousands of workers and forcing manufacturers to temporarily close plants. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, more than 40,000 meatpacking employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 189 have died.
When employees feel unsafe in the workplace, they can file a complaint to OSHA. Thousands of complaints, many in meat processing facilities, have been filed since the outbreaks began, but the records don’t say what actions were taken. OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance in July for meat and poultry processing facilities, including how to distance employees and work with health officials.
But even as plants have implemented more precautions with plastic barriers between employees, temperature scanners and mask mandates, the coronavirus has continued to spread. This new agreement between OSHA and NAMI is intended to protect workers, but doesn't give many details on how it will do that.
Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said in a statement that by working together, OSHA and NAMI "can help ensure that employers in this critical industry have the tools and information they need to protect workers from the risk of the coronavirus."
The agreement said the groups will conduct outreach to small- and medium-sized facilities about guidance and compliance assistance resources, including its consultation program as well as providing information on OSHA’s policies and procedures. However, the alliance does not detail any enforceable actions or consequences of not following the guidance, which is what workers and unions have been pushing for. UFCW's Perrone said in a statement this alliance gives more power to the meat industry.
"This is a shameless attempt to silence worker voices and give giant corporations direct access to the federal agency that is supposed to be in charge of oversight and accountability," Perrone said. "Allowing the meat industry to conduct safety oversight of itself is dangerous for both workers and the safety of the food we eat."
OSHA and meat processors are facing lawsuits for how these issues are being handled.
Employees who got sick and families of workers who died from coronavirus have started to file lawsuits against Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and other companies for the conditions in plants as coronavirus spread. At the same time, three meatpacking workers at a Maid-Rite Specialty Foods plant in Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against OSHA and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia because they filed a complaint of the "imminent danger" posed by the coronavirus at their work and felt that nothing was done, ProPublica reported.
As OSHA and the meat industry face increased scrutiny for their handling of these cases, working together seems to be the logical next step in trying to rectify the situation. However, if the alliance results in what unions fear could happen, with workers being silenced and issues going unpunished, then it could account for more problems down the line.