The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued joint guidelines on COVID-19 safety for meat packing and processing plants on April 26, 2020. Meat and poultry processing facilities are a component of the critical infrastructure within the Food and Agriculture Sector.
President Trump found food-processing workers bear a special responsibility to maintain their normal schedules during this national emergency. He then issued his April 28, 2020 Executive Order with respect to food supply chain resources to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations.
“Workers involved in meat and poultry processing are not exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through the meat products they handle. However, their work environments—processing lines and other areas in busy plants where they have close contact with coworkers and supervisors—may contribute substantially to their potential exposures.“– Interim Guidance from CDC and OSHA
Distinctive Risks for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers
The CDC/OSHA Guidance for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers outlines exposure risks among meat and poultry processing workers.
Distinctive factors that affect workers’ risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in meat and poultry processing workplaces include:
- Distance between workers – meat and poultry processing workers often work close to one another on processing lines. Workers may also be near one another at other times, such as when clocking in or out, during breaks, or in locker/changing rooms.
- Duration of contact – meat and poultry processing workers often have prolonged closeness to coworkers (e.g., for 10-12 hours per shift). Continued contact with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.
- Type of contact – meat and poultry processing workers may be exposed to the infectious virus through respiratory droplets in the air – for example, when workers in the plant who have the virus cough or sneeze. It is also possible that exposure could occur from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, workstations, or break room tables. Shared spaces such as break rooms, locker rooms, and entrances/exits to the facility may contribute to their risk.
- Other distinctive factors that may increase risk among these workers include:
- A common practice at some workplaces of sharing transportation such as ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles, car-pools, and public transportation
- Frequent contact with fellow workers in community settings in areas where there is ongoing community transmission.
Recommendations for Workplace Safety
The CDC/OSHA guidelines go into great detail to outline the steps that employers can take to ensure COVID-19 safety for meat packing and processing plants. These include:
- Create a COVID-19 assessment and control plan
- Engineering Controls – Modify the alignment of workstations, including along processing lines, etc.
- Administrative Controls – promote social distancing, analyze sick leave policies, etc.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Educate and train workers and supervisors about how they can reduce the spread of COVID-19
- Cleaning and disinfection in meat and poultry processing
- Screening and monitoring of workers for COVID-19
- Managing sick workers
- Addressing return to work
- Workers’ rights
Filing a Complaint – Concerns About Safety and Health
Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, 29 USC 660(c), prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising concerns about safety and health conditions. Additionally, OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Programexternal icon enforces the provisions of more than 20 industry-specific federal laws protecting employees from retaliation for raising or reporting concerns about hazards or violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health insurance reform, motor vehicle safety, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime, securities, and tax laws. OSHA encourages workers who suffer such retaliation to submit a complaint to OSHA as soon as possible in order to file their complaint within the legal time limits, some of which may be as short as 30 days from the date they learned of or experienced retaliation.
An employee can file a complaint with OSHA if they have concerns about proper implementation of COVID-19 safety for meat packing and processing workers. A complaint can be filed by visiting or calling the local OSHA office; sending a written complaint via fax, mail, or email to the closest OSHA office; or filing a complaint online. No particular form is required, and complaints may be submitted in any language. OSHA has contact information, here.
Coronavirus on the Job – Workers’ Compensation
Washington Governor Jay Inslee and and Department of Labor and Industries Director Joel Sacks issued a press release concerning the Department’s policy on workers’ compensation coverage related to exposures to Coronavirus on the job.
Under the State’s clarified policy, workers’ compensation benefits must be provided to health care workers and first responders. The policy also applies to others who may have accepted claims for exposure to COVID-19; for example, those who are working in facilities with documented exposures or others whose claims may be approved.
Workers who are quarantined by a physician or public health officer are entitled to workers compensation benefits during the time they’re quarantined after being exposed to COVID-19 on the job. If they develop the coronavirus, workers’ compensation benefits would be provided during their period of illness and recovery, as well, under an allowed claim.
See our prior post, DLI NEWS: CORONAVIRUS ON THE JOB, for more details.