With COVID-19 affecting meat processing plants here and around the country, the challenge is not only to keep plants open, but to make sure they are operating safely. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order clearly addresses the former. The latter remains to be seen.
Worker safety is essential to avoid disruption of the nation’s supply of meat and poultry, and its ripple effects up and down the food chain — from farmers to consumers. Without healthy workers to keep plants operating, there is little use in ordering meatpacking plants to remain open during the coronavirus outbreak as Trump did earlier this week.
To date, 22 meat processing plants around the country have been temporarily closed after outbreaks of COVID-19 among employees, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. By the union’s count, at least 20 meatpacking and food-processing workers have died from complications of the virus, with thousands more directly impacted — missing work because of symptoms, hospitalizations or self quarantine.
In Washington, outbreaks have affected production at Tyson Fresh Meats in Wallula and the Washington Beef plant in Toppenish, The Seattle Times has reported. Critics say the Tyson plant, in particular, was slow to respond to health concerns.
In a letter to Tyson CEO Noel White this week, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chastised the company for its handling of the Wallula outbreak, where more than 100 employees have tested positive to date. More confirmed cases are expected as testing continues. She wrote that many constituents had expressed concerns about lack of personal protective equipment, questioning the company’s decision not to close the plant until more than a week after 34 employees tested positive for COVID-19.
Trump’s executive order does nod to safety issues, directing the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to determine priorities and allocate resources consistent with interim guidance released by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the key will be in the follow-through. Although OSHA issued advisory guidance for employers in early March, it did not issue specific guidance for meatpackers until Sunday — long after the industry-specific concerns were clear.
The safety watchdog’s suggestions include creating a COVID-19 assessment and control plan, staggering start and break times, configuring work environments to allow for social distancing, installing physical barriers, ensuring adequate ventilation and installing handwashing and sanitizing stations.
These common-sense precautions should have been taken at the outset of this pandemic. Failing that, the second-best time to protect workers, and thereby the nation’s food supply chain, is now.