The mostly Latina, Black, and immigrant workers at the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Milan, MO, stand shoulder-to shoulder on a high-speed meat processing line. Many already suffer from repetitive stress injuries and urinary tract infections because they are not allowed enough bathroom breaks. They often can’t clean or sanitize their hands for hours. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many think twice about covering their mouths while coughing or cleaning their faces after sneezing because they might miss a piece of meat as it goes by, and be slapped with a disciplinary action.
With conditions so unsanitary and unsafe, it’s no wonder that food processing plants are prime breeding grounds for coronavirus contagion. As of April 23, there were more than 3,400 reported positive cases in 62 meat processing plant across 23 states. At least 17 workers died at eight plants in eight states. Some 22 plants are or have been closed because they are health and safety hell holes.
The meat processing industry is one of the worst examples of a national phenomenon: the absence of clear and enforced safety regulations. Nationwide obligatory safety measures, with built-in punishments for transgressors, would save lives on the job, keep vital industries going, and slow the virus’ spread.
Such standards would eliminate confusion for both workers and employers. A mechanism to enforce them would ensure employers’ compliance. This would prevent the kind of abuses seen in meat processing, which hurt both workers and meat consumers. Companies like Smithfield, for example, would be slapped with large fines if maintaining such conditions, and could even face criminal charges for death and endangerment.
OSHA’s job is to enforce workplace safety
There is a U.S agency whose job is to do just this. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for the country’s workplace safety. Established in 1970 under the Department of Labor, its mission is to “assure safe and healthy working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”
OSHA is one of the very few agencies in the government mandated to consult with workers, to protect them, and provide them with workplaces free of known dangers.
If there is a grave danger, OSHA can issue an Emergency Temporary Standard that would instruct employers across a variety of industries to put safety protocols into effect, and that would subject violators of these standards to fines.
There is precedent for OSHA making tough and obligatory rules during a public health crisis. During the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009, OSHA made Committee for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines enforceable, requiring the use of face masks and other measures to slow transmission. Yet the agency is not doing this now.
Unions demand government ensure worker safety
In March, the 55 unions representing 12.5 million workers that make up the AFL-CIO demanded that OSHA issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect all workers at potential risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19. Employers would be required to assess workplace-specific risks, implement controls to reduce risks, develop protocols and training, and develop pandemic plans, with workers engaged in each process. (For a full list of the AFL-CIO demands, click here) But Labor Secretary Eugene Salia refused to invoke this power, the union says.
Trump’s Labor Secretary is anti-labor
OSHA is part of the Department of Labor. Called OSHA’s fox in the hen house, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia is an anti-labor lawyer who has argued that OSHA inspections are too vigorous and that workers, not employers, should pay for their Personal Protective Equipment.
Cuts to OSHA have occurred under both Democratic and Republican administrations. But under the Trump administration, OSHA workplace safety inspectors have been cut to the lowest level in its 48-year history, and the number of high level legal action brought against employers for safety violations slashed in half.
Union pleas ignored
Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA has ignored the pleas of scores of trade unions to protect workers. It has refused to set any obligatory health and safety standards for any essential industry. It has even relinquished the task of on-the-job safety monitoring to the very employers guilty of safety violations, including food processing executives. In short, it has sought to turn the agency which keeps worker safe into a cover and apologist for employer unsafe conditions.
Trump’s OSHA favors bosses over workers
OSHA has adopted CDC guidelines such as using masks in workplaces, social distancing and sanitizing stations. But these are only suggestions, with none of it mandatory or enforceable. In case there was any doubt, the agency’s COVID-19 guidance actually begins by explaining that it “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.”
After a public outcry over the runaway contagion in the meat processing industry, OSHA recently issued an interim guidance for the meatpacking industry, but here too, everything is voluntary, and many guidelines are qualified with the words “if possible.”
Feds cede safety monitoring to bosses
In another fox guarding the hen house move, in April the agency has actually passed on responsibility for conducting safety investigations at non-medical workplaces to the employers themselves, even in those areas of rampant infection like food processing. OSHA even said it was the bosses’ responsibility to determine if their workers who were infected with the virus got it at work.
COVID-19 is officially classified as a recordable illness, requiring employers to keep track of and notify OSHA of cases in their workforce. However, on April 10, OSHA quietly issued a new regulatory guidance further eroding worker protection. The agency said that recording virus cases was an “excessive burden” on companies. Now, recording of virus cases would only be required of employers in health care, emergency response or prisons.
The exception is if the employer has “clear evidence” that the infection was work related! What company is going to conduct its own investigation and definitively determine that it was responsible for its workers contracting the virus, and then tell OSHA?
Employers ‘don’t have to do anything’
Jordan Barab, the former deputy assistant secretary at OSHA, pointed out that this means, “So all you infected bus drivers, grocery store clerks, poultry processors—you didn’t get it at work.” Regarding record-keeping of viral illness in the workforce, he said, “First and foremost, they’re supposed to record so they themselves have the information necessary to determine where there are problems and when to do something about them.” (New York Times)
Marc Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, representing 1.3 million workers, added, “as long as OSHA doesn’t take a position, these employers have a pass to say workers got sick elsewhere and it’s not their responsibility.” url
OSHA rollbacks and inaction is “sending signals to employers that they don’t have to do anything,” said Ann Rosenthal, who recently retired as the Labor Department’s top OSHA lawyer.
Executive order sides with meat processing executives
On April 28, Trump signed an executive order declaring the country’s meat supply “critical” and that meat processing plants would be kept open to prevent shortages. No obligatory workers’ protections were part of that order. In fact, the executive order could even shield companies from lawsuits by employees who fall ill while cutting meat.
In this, the Labor Department and OSHA have both weighed in on the side of the bosses. Labor and OSHA issued a statement saying that the federal government could overrule any state or local governments that closed meat plants until safety violations were corrected.
Regarding actual enforcement, acting OSHA administrator Loren Sweatt and Solicitor of Labor Kate O’Scannlain released a joint statement after the Executive Order was issued, calling the guidance “vitally important” for employers to follow. They added that the agency will use “enforcement discretion” when considering employers’ adherence to the OSHA COVID-19 guidence for meat processing, guidance or their “good faith” effort to do so.
Employers don’t have to implement portions of the guidance that they find “not feasible” in their plants, the statement says. It also indicates that the Department of Labor “will consider a request to participate” in litigation on behalf of employers “acting in good faith” who might be sued by an employee! This is a clear message that the Labor Department is pro boss and anti-labor.
Take the question of speedup. Safety at meat processing plants would mean slowing assembly lines so workers could socially distance. It is unlikely that Smithfield and the others will be required to do this. In April, while the pandemic raged, the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service gave 11 poultry plants waivers to slaughter as many as 175 birds a minute, or three a second!
A few months before, the same agency dropped any limits to pork processing line speeds.
This not only hurts workers, it also compromises food safety for consumers. But it does increase profits!
Democrats won’t fight
Trump and his corporate backers are trying to turn OSHA into an instrument of workers’ deaths, rather than an agency dedicated to preventing them. But the Democratic Party is also complicit. Cuts to OSHA have taken place under Democratic presidents. And now Democratic politicians are not fighting to protect the workers who they claim to represent. Congress has the authority to mandate OSHA to make health and safety regulations obligatory. But Democratic politicians have no campaign to do this.
National Nurses United, a union with 185,000 members, has called upon Congress to immediately pass a bill mandating OSHA to set mandatory workplace safety standards. The union calls it “inexcusable” that Congress has already passed three COVID-19 aid packages, and is currently debating another, without including standards for the safety of health care providers.
Massive safety planning and enforcement is needed on a scale and with an urgency equal to the severity of this pandemic. To make essential workers choose between their job and their health, between potential sickness and financial devastation is to put a gun to their head.
But workers will fight back
And now, as corporations push for a premature opening of the economy, there is every indication that those returning to the job will receive the same treatment as essential workers: They will bear all the responsibility and their bosses will have no accountability.
The Democrats won’t fight, but the workers will. Tens of thousands of workers, union and non-union, have already taken to the streets in walk-outs, sick outs, banner drops, picket lines to demands basic safety, hazard pay, healthcare and more. These labor actions are bound to deepen and grow.