COVID-19 deaths go uninvestigated as OSHA takes a hands-off approach to meatpacking plants
OSHA has not inspected 26 out of the 65 meatpacking plants where reporters found at least one worker died of COVID-19.
By Kyle Bagenstose, Sky Chadde and Rachel Axon, USA TODAY
Jan 11, 2021
Normally, a workplace death in the United States is met with a swift and thorough response.
By law, employers must report a death within eight hours to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. An inspector from OSHA typically arrives within a day to interview workers, review the site of the incident, and determine whether the death resulted from unsafe conditions.
For workers in the meatpacking industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the system of swift reporting and next-day inspections that should protect them has broken down.
At least 239 meatpacking workers have died and 45,000 have contracted the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. But companies reported less than half that number of deaths to OSHA, a joint investigation by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center found. Experts say that's in large part because the agency weakened reporting requirements during the pandemic.
Even fewer deaths triggered the kind of robust investigation OSHA typically conducted before the pandemic. Worker advocates say that's also a consequence of a hands-off approach from OSHA.
Deaths at meatpacking plants
And it isn’t just how many died, but who. The U.S. meatpacking industry has long relied on vulnerable populations to fill its workforce: immigrants, refugees, people of color, and those who lack other employment opportunities. During its last data release in July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 87% of coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants occurred among racial or ethnic minorities.
Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior policy adviser at OSHA and now director of the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program, says that many coronavirus deaths are going unreported and uninvestigated, letting employers off the hook for unsafe conditions.
“The agency failed. It failed,” Berkowitz said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
The meatpacking industry and OSHA separately pushed back against those conclusions. Sarah Little, a spokesperson for the industry group North American Meat Institute, said not all COVID-19 deaths need to be reported.
“The fact that any employee contracts COVID-19 does not indicate the infection was related to their workplace,” Little said.
In an email, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Labor, which houses OSHA, said the “hands-off” characterization of the agency was “patently false” and that the agency investigates every complaint it receives.
“OSHA has been clear that employers are and will continue to be responsible for providing a workplace free of known health and safety hazards,” the department said.
But evidence shows deaths are going unreported.
At a Seaboard Foods plant in Guymon, Oklahoma, 961 workers have tested positive for the virus and six have died from COVID-19, according to the company. The Department of Labor has not received any reports of deaths from the plant, a spokesperson said.
A Seaboard spokesperson said the company did not report the deaths because it determined the deaths were not work-related.
OSHA opened an inspection into the plant in July, but it was not related to COVID-19, according to Seaboard. A Labor Department spokesperson said the inspection resulted in Seaboard “abating” hazards. But no one from OSHA has actually visited the plant during the pandemic, said Martin Rosas, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 2. The agency has not issued any fines or citations.
Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, denied that such instances are proof of any systemic failings.
“By pulling isolated alleged incidents out of context from the thousands of inspections conducted by OSHA, these criticisms unfairly disparage the work of dedicated OSHA inspectors across the country,” Sweatt said...
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