SMITHFIELD, VA. – Smithfield Foods Inc. said it will contest a citation and proposed fine imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), calling the action “wholly without merit.”
OSHA cited Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, SD, for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus and proposed a penalty of $13,494, the maximum allowed by law.
OSHA took the action based on a coronavirus-related inspection, according to the agency. OSHA cited Smithfield for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm. At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted coronavirus, and four employees died from the virus.
“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” said Sheila Stanley, OSHA Sioux Falls area director. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”
Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of Corporate Affairs and Compliance at Smithfield, said, “After an investigation that spanned many months and encompassed the review of over 20,000 pages of documents and 60 interviews, OSHA has issued only a singular citation under its catchall “general duty clause” for conditions that existed on and prior to March 23, 2020. This is notable because OSHA did not issue guidelines for the meatpacking industry until April 26, 2020.
“Despite this fact, we figured it out on our own,” Lombardo said. “We took extraordinary measures on our own initiative to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible so that we could fulfill our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply. We incurred incremental expenses related to COVID-19 totaling $350 million during the second quarter alone. Ironically, OSHA then used what we had done as a model for its April 26 guidance.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in meatpacking plants, also criticized OSHA’s actions although for different reasons. The union panned the citation and proposed fine as “completely insufficient in the wake of the company’s failure to protect meatpacking workers” at the Sioux Falls facility.
“How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump Administration, clearly not much,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW International president. “This so-called ‘fine’ is a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face of the thousands of American meatpacking workers who have been putting their lives on the line to help feed America since the beginning of this pandemic.
“OSHA has been asleep at the switch throughout this pandemic and this is just the latest example of the agency failing to do their job and take responsibility for worker safety. If we truly care about protecting workers and our nation’s food supply during this pandemic, the federal government must take action, beginning with an enforceable national safety standard, increased access to PPE and COVID-19 testing, and rigorous proactive inspections.”
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) also weighed in, saying that OSHA had engaged in revisionism.
“The meat and poultry industry’s first priority is the safety of the men and women who work in their facilities,” said Julie Anna Potts, president and chief executive officer of NAMI. “Notwithstanding inconsistent and sometimes tardy government advice, (‘don’t wear a mask/wear a mask’/April 26 OSHA guidance specific to the meat and poultry industry) when the pandemic hit in mid-March, meat and poultry processing companies quickly and diligently took steps to protect their workers. Companies had to overcome challenges associated with limited personal protective equipment, they implemented screening systems to keep sick employees out of plants, developed COVID-19 plans with administrative and engineering controls to protect workers which included and but were not limited to the CDC/OSHA guidelines.
“Most importantly, as evidenced in trends in data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network and The New York Times, these many programs and controls once in place worked and continue to work. Positive cases of COVID-19 associated with meat and poultry companies are trending down compared with cases nationwide.”
A team from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) toured the plant on April 16 and 17 and released recommendations for Smithfield Foods executives to consider before reopening the plant on April 22.
In August, the CDC documented how the coronavirus spread through the facility in its Aug. 7 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Based on its findings, CDC reiterated the importance of enforcing social distancing protocols, constructing physical barriers among workers on production lines and correct and consistent use of masks can help prevent pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic employees infected with the coronavirus from transmitting the virus to others.
The agency also reiterated the importance of implementing control measures — before, or soon after, the virus infiltrates a facility — to substantially reduce the risk for COVID-19 spread.
Lombardo said the Sioux Falls community experienced an early spike in COVID-19 cases that impacted our plant.
“We responded immediately, consulting with CDC, South Dakota Department of Health, USDA and many others,” she said. “We also simultaneously and repeatedly urged OSHA to commit the time and resources to visit our operations in March and April. They did not do so.
“More than anything, the outcome of OSHA’s comprehensive, full court press investigation of our Sioux Falls, SD, facility validates the aggressive and comprehensive manner in which we have protected the health and safety of our employees amid the pandemic. Again, the citation is wholly without merit and we plan to contest it.”