US plant closures prompt worker safety plea

By Aidan Fortune

- Last updated on GMT

US plant closures prompt worker safety plea

Related tags Us coronavirus processing Beef Pork Processing and packaging Innovation Processing equipment & plant design

The extent of the impact of the coronavirus on US meat processing facilities has been highlighted by a workers’ union.

According to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, more than 5,000 meatpacking workers have been directly affected by the virus as well as 1,500 food processing workers.

The UFCW released new updates on the virus. As of 23 April, UFCW estimates that 10 meatpacking workers and three food processing workers have died due to the coronavirus. The estimates of those meatpacking and processing workers directly impacted includes individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, or have been hospitalized and/or are symptomatic.

In total, the UFCW identified that 13 plants have closed at some point in the past two months. These closures have resulted in over 24,500 workers impacted and a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and a 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.

The statistics prompted the UFCW to write a letter to Vice President Pence urgently called for the White House Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize five safety actions targeted toward the meatpacking industry, including: (1) increased worker testing, (2) priority access to PPE, (3) halting line speed waivers, (4) mandating social distancing, and (5) isolating workers with symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.

“America’s food processing and meatpacking workers are in extreme danger, and our nation’s food supply faces a direct threat from the coronavirus outbreak. If workers in these plants are as essential as our elected leaders say, then it’s about time that our elected leaders provide them with the essential protections they need. Make no mistake, without national safety standards to protect these workers from the coronavirus– more lives will be lost, more workers will be exposed, and our food supply will face jeopardy,”​ said Marc Perrone, international president of the United Food & Commercial Workers.

Smithfield Foods recently responded to allegations that it has not prioritised worker safety during the coronavirus situation​.

Guidance issued

The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released joint coronavirus-related interim guidance for meatpacking and meat processing workers and employers – including those involved in beef, pork and poultry operations. The guidance includes recommended actions employers can take to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“As essential workers, those in the meatpacking and processing industries need to be protected from coronavirus for their own safety and health,”​ said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt. “OSHA’s newest guidance document outlines steps employers can take to provide a safe and healthy workplace for workers in the meatpacking and processing industries.”

The interim guidance from OSHA and the CDC includes information regarding:

  • Cleaning of shared meatpacking and processing tools;
  • Screening employees for the coronavirus before they enter work facilities;
  • Managing workers who are showing symptoms of the coronavirus;
  • Implementing appropriate engineering, administrative, and work practice controls;
  • Using appropriate personal protective equipment, and;
  • Practicing social distancing at the workplace.

Related topics Meat

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