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Food Safety and Worker Advocacy Organizations File Legal Action to Implement Mandatory Worker Safety Standards at Meatpacking Facilities

May 05, 2020
Center for Food Safety

Food Safety and Worker Advocacy Organizations File Legal Action to Implement Mandatory Worker Safety Standards at Meatpacking Facilities

 5,000 meat and poultry plant workers have been sickened by COVID-19, but most facilities show no signs of improving public health and safety measures

Washington, D.C. — Yesterday, Center for Food Safety and Food Chain Workers Alliance filed a legal action demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers in meat processing plants due to the high percentage of workers who have been sickened by COVID-19. 

OSHA has a duty to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from new hazards that pose a grave danger to health and safety. The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a grave threat to human health, but OSHA has only suggested that meat companies comply with voluntary safety standards. Last week President Trump muddied the waters by signing an executive order to invoke the Defense Production Act, declaring meatpacking plants to be "essential infrastructure" in order to force them to stay open despite close working quarters, high infection rates, and inadequate protections.

"Considering that we're in the midst of deadly pandemic, the mixed messages that companies are getting from President Trump and OSHA aren't just irresponsible, they're reprehensible," said Ryan Talbott, staff attorney at Center for Food Safety. "President Trump is essentially sending meatpacking workers to their deaths by declaring meatpacking facilities to be essential infrastructure with only voluntary safety measures suggested by OSHA. If these facilities are going to be forced to stay open, then OSHA must implement an emergency temporary standard that protects worker health and safety during this pandemic."

Rates of infection in counties with meatpacking plants are higher than the rates of 75% of U.S. counties. Despite the fact that over 5,000 workers at meat and poultry plants have been sickened by COVID-19 — including 20 who have died from it — most meat companies have done little to help stop the spread of the virus at their plants.

Yesterday's legal action states that OSHA has a mandatory obligation to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers in meatpacking plants. This will also help ensure a safer food supply. Unprotected and sick workers are more likely to make mistakes, making it more likely that tainted meat gets on store shelves. The last thing we need during this pandemic is a major foodborne illness outbreak.

"With workers crammed in side-by-side on processing lines, it's no surprise that meatpacking plants have become incubators for COVID-19," said Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "We're in an unprecedented situation and right now we need OSHA to enforce mandatory protections like paid sick days, handwashing stations, slower line speeds, and 6 feet of space between workers."

Center for Food Safety and Food Chain Workers Alliance state that if OSHA does not respond to their petition within one week, the groups will seek to enforce the law in court.

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