SIOUX FALLS, SD. – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a lengthy list of recommendations for Smithfield Foods executives to consider before reopening the company’s Sioux Falls pork processing plant. A team from the CDC toured the South Dakota plant on April 16 and 17 with the goal of making recommendations on when to reopen the facility.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem released the report on April 22.
“I want to thank Vice President Pence, Secretary of Agriculture Perdue, and the CDC for prioritizing the situation at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls,” Noem said. “Their partnership has been critical to the work that we’ve done to get this cluster under control and safeguard the health of this workforce.
“My team at the Department of Health will continue to work with Smithfield and offer any assistance we can to help them implement these CDC recommendations, so they can safely reopen this plant as soon as possible.”
In its report, the CDC team said, “We toured the plant and observed workstations from the pens where the swine are delivered through the distribution center, where product is shipped out of the plant. We also observed the route that employees take from the parking lots through the symptom screening tents and into the facility. Additionally, we observed administrative areas, the occupational health clinic and quarantine room, and the common areas (e.g. break rooms, cafeterias, locker rooms) shared by employees.”
The CDC acknowledged, “The company implemented several controls at the plant to help reduce and mitigate the spread of coronavirus between employees in the plant and is in the process of implementing additional strategies …”
These measures included providing face masks and shields, employee temperature screening and wellness checks.
“In at least one department (Ground Seasoned Pork), line speed had been reduced to accommodate fewer employees on the line due to social distancing efforts and workforce availability constraints (i.e., illness amongst employees),” CDC said. “Plant management had identified and installed approximately 800 plexiglass barriers in locations where distancing was not possible.
“On other lines, barriers had been hung in an attempt to separate employees. Management reported the barriers were made of plexiglass.”
Plant management identified the pork conversion department as having a high density of positive cases. The first case among employees was detected on March 24, 2020. Smithfield closed the Sioux Falls plant indefinitely after more than 500 employees who work at the facility tested positive for COVID-19. The Sioux Falls plant accounts for as much as 5% of US pork production. Roughly 3,700 individuals work at the plant which is supplied by 550 pig producers. In a letter to Smithfield on April 11, Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken asked the company to idle the plant for 14 days to allow time to test employees before they return to work and disinfect workspaces, among other cautionary measures.
In addition to the company’s mitigation steps, CDC recommended a combination of control measures with ongoing education and training to help reduce transmission in the workplace.
Managers at the plant said communicating COVID-19 risks, prevention and company policies to their diverse staff presented challenges due to the number of languages spoken, the report said.
“Our team was unable to identify important demographic information about this workforce, limiting our ability to understand the diversity of the employees,” CDC said. “However, plant management reported that there were approximately 40 different languages spoken by employees in the plant and that English, Spanish, Kunama, Swahili, Nepali, Tigrinya, Amharic, French, Oromo and Vietnamese are the top 10 languages.”
In its recommendations, the CDC team stressed the importance of maintaining ongoing communication and message coordination to ensure consistent messaging wherever possible.
“Early communication of COVID-19 information helps limit misinformation and rumors that could contribute to confusion and fear,” CDC said. “Empathetic communication conveys concern and reassurance, empowers people, and reduces emotional turmoil. Accurate communication provides the facts about a situation and what is being done to resolve it.”
Specific recommendations from the CDC included:
- Enlarging and simplifying COVID-19 informational signs throughout the plant;
- Using more pictures/pictograms and adding more languages to increase the percentage of workers that engage with signs and messaging;
- Empowering employees to provide corrective guidance to other employees about improperly worn PPE; and
- Encouraging employees to use mass-communication methods available at the plant.
The CDC noted that the plant had recently implemented a new messaging app called “Beekeeper” that enabled management to mass-communicate with employees in a language of their choice.
“Although plant management stated that many of their employees used smart phones, it was unclear how widely the app was being used among employees at the time of our visits,” the CDC said. “The plant also utilized a text messaging alert system that could send COVID-19 related messages to employees.”
To improve communication between plant management and employees, CDC recommended encouraging employees to download and use the Beekeeper app and to sign up for other mass-communication methods available at the plant.
CDC also said Smithfield should consider “… deploying training through the Beekeeper application and other mass-communication methods. Use read receipt functions to gauge participation and engagement. Consider ways to incentivize employee utilization of these trainings.”
Social distancing is one of the best strategies to avoid exposure to the virus and slowing its spread, CDC said. The team recommended adding more visual cues at 6-foot intervals in cafeterias, knife and gear acquisition areas and other areas where lines may form. Visual cues could include floor markings, signs or traffic cones.
“Staggering employees along lines workstations so that employees are not working directly across from each other,” the CDC report said. “Changes in production practices (e.g. line speed reductions) may be necessary in order to maintain appropriate distance among employees.”
Additional recommendations for maintaining social distancing included staggering shifts, start times and break times to decrease the density of employees in locker rooms, break areas and cafeterias at one time.
The CDC recommended adding more touchless clock-in/clock-out stations throughout the plant, installing no-touch sinks, soap dispensers and paper towel dispensers wherever possible, and making “unidirectional paths” through the plant on stairs, hallways, cafeterias and other areas where possible.
All employees should wear face coverings over their nose and mouth in all areas of the plant to improve source control, CDC said. Face shields should be used in addition to eye protection, not as a replacement for jobs requiring eye protection.
Smithfield also should consider identifying off-site housing for workers who tested positive for COVID-19 and live in a household where they can't self-isolate from other household members, CDC said.
The full report can found here.