This past week the U.S. meatpacking industry hit grim milestones in the American COVID-19 epidemic with over 15,000 infections and 60 deaths tied to meatpacking facilities, and the nation has now turned its attention to this largely forgotten industry.
We now know that meatpacking companies had plenty of warning that airborne pathogens could pose workplace risks and yet they did little to protect their workers. In addition, it is clear that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has failed to enforce infection control requirements in these plants. If Americans want to continue to rely on a safe and continuous supply of meat, Congress must make sure workers are protected and further outbreaks are prevented.
Until COVID-19, few Americans thought about who produces their meat or how meat makes it to grocery stores. Meatpacking workers face some of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of any occupation and many American meatpackers are immigrants. The work is physically demanding and fast paced, dictated by the speed of “the line” or the conveyor belt that continuously moves animal carcasses through different points of production such as slaughtering, eviscerating, deboning, cutting, trimming and packaging for distribution to grocery stores.
In our research in pork plants, we calculated the average worker had 4.5 seconds to perform their task before the next carcass came along or 5,000 repetitions of the same task during one day on the line.
The answer to why so many meatpacking plants have been sources of COVID-19 lies largely in the way meatpacking is organized. At a time when many industries have found ways to reduce physical demands on workers, the design of meat processing plants are much as they were in the 1980s. Unlike other food commodities such as fruits and vegetables, meat processing relies entirely on human labor with very little automation. Workers are crowded together, standing elbow to elbow in tight sync with no time to step off the line to sneeze or cough without falling behind. Paramount to preventing coronavirus transmission is maintaining six-foot distances so that workers, including those with asymptomatic infections, cannot transmit the virus by coughing, sneezing or speaking.
To keep the process safe, plants must space out workers and that means they must slow down the line. In addition, plants must erect six-foot barriers between workstations and ensure six-foot distancing throughout the offline areas of the plant.
The uniform public health advice given to all Americans is not to leave home if you are feeling ill. Therefore, it is especially critical that meatpacking workers must not be incentivized to come to work sick by workplace policies such as failing to offer pandemic sick leave or discouraging workers from reporting when they are feeling ill for fear of reprisal or lost wages.
Companies have been slow to act, especially in enforcing physical distancing and slowing down the line. They argue that line speed and work design must be maintained or their productivity will slow. Failing to provide these standard protections to all workers will result in more work-associated infections and deaths, more community spread among family members and nearby residents and more plant closures.
A recent court ruling in a suit against a meatpacking plant in Milan, Missouri was dismissed, with the judge saying that the responsibility for ensuring compliance with guidelines fell to OSHA. The judge excused the company saying, “No one can guarantee health for essential workers — or even the general public — in the middle of this global pandemic.”
When it comes to public health, OSHA and other public health agencies play a crucial role, and yet the current administration has let the number of inspectors at OSHA fall to the lowest level in almost half a century and more than 40 percent of the top leadership positions at OSHA are currently unfilled.
As if to add insult to injury, last month while meatpacking facilities became hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks, the United States Department of Agriculture announced plans to allow 11 poultry plants to speed up the production lines. All the while OSHA has failed to issue any specific requirements that employers must implement to protect workers from COVID-19.
What can be done? The solutions lie in using common sense epidemic control principles combined with responsible enforcement and follow through. What is needed in all meatpacking plants right now is infectious disease epidemiology 101: identify and contain the sources of infection; change the environment so that infections can be stopped; and protect the people at risk for infection.
Complete and timely public reporting of infections is also an essential tool for effective epidemic surveillance and control. Going forward for the foreseeable future, worker safety, food safety and sustainable meat production together must be carefully re-evaluated to prepare for the inevitability of the next airborne pathogen threat facing the meat industry.
Rates of infection are likely to increase in the coming weeks due to plants being slow to act or resistant to slow down line speed to achieve adequate physical distancing. If OSHA will not do its job, Congress must take action now to shield all workers. For example, H.R. 6559, The COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020, would require OSHA to issue an emergency standard aimed at protecting all workers, including those at meatpacking plants. Such action would help ensure healthy workers, healthy industries and a sustainable supply of meat at grocery stores.
Melissa J. Perry, ScD, MHS, is professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.