In April, Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA) issued a set of guidelines, noting that due to the pandemic, OHSA would avoid inspecting violations in person except for select industries including health care and emergency response. OSHA is a federal regulatory agency under the US Department of Labor that helps to ensure safe working conditions by enforcing standards and providing assistance. Instead of issuing a rule regarding workplace conditions under Covid-19, OSHA issued a set of recommendations. has been issuing some fines, but many companies view them as too low to be a punishment. In addition to these provisions, Trump issued Executive Order 13917, declaring meatpacking “critical infrastructure.” OSHA has said that they typically investigate in-person when they deem something an “immediate danger.” But due to the pandemic, all meatpacking facilities have been deemed a “medium risk.” Even if they did inspect the plants, it was typically done months after the first complaint. A local official of OSHA noted that they “did not have the capacity for inspections.”
In addition to lax regulations on safety procedures, there has also been a reinterpretation of an Obama rule, changing the terms in which employers have to report Covid-19 cases, making it less extensive. Instead of reporting a covid inspired hospitalization in 24 hours, the report needs to be reported within 24 hours of them being exposed on the job, which is impossible to determine and deliberately endangers the American people.
The labor department has defended low penalties because that is the maximum amount allowed to issue. George W. Bush’s head of OSHA set a precedent that extra penalties for the same violation would only be only be done if the company “willfully does it.”But without these extra violations, companies don’t see it as a threat. The number citations is very low in comparison to hospitals and nursing homes, something that would typically be classified as essential business.The citations given to two meatpacking facilities was under 30,000 while over 1 million has been given to dozens of healthcare facilities. The meat packing facilities, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods have a combined profit of “tens of billions of dollars” Despite this low number of citations, coronavirus spread is a large problem in the meatpacking industry. Just at the two facilities that received citations, more than 1,500 people have been exposed to the virus and dozens have died.
There have been multiple actions taken against the agency due to their negligence. In Dunmpre, Pennsylvania, workers at the “Maid-Rite plant” have filed a lawsuit against OSHA for lax regulation. This comes after little action was taken by OSHA after multiple complaints were filed for unsafe working conditions. The agency eventually visited the plant to find that workers were not spaced 6 feet apart, rather 2 to 3 feet apart. Despite this blatant disregard, spokesperson at the plant said they were following guidelines expressed by the CDC.
Labor unions and even company executives were frustrated with the lack of interest shown by OSHA, both encouraging the agency to come visit the plants. The labor department, in defense, noted that they have 6 months to complete an investigation, which seems like a rather tone-deaf response to people dying. Of those that received inspections, they said that they were thorough, but the penalty was too low and safety regulations were not implemented soon enough.
JBS and Smithfield are contesting their citations due to those regulations not being in place since March. Both companies have taken precautions, often going beyond what OSHA had recommended including “barriers between many workers, taken air-purification measures and started virus screening and testing programs.”
This is not specific to meatpacking, OSHA has been lax on investigating most labor violations. Despite these apparent violations, the labor department said that “OSHA was still studying the feasibility of requiring the company to space them farther apart.” While it is understandable that in a pandemic, the organizations have to prioritize some industries over the other, is it worth it? Even the companies that had expressed disappointment in OSHA’s actions, are contesting these decisions because there were no regulations in place. It’s clear that without government regulation, companies won’t take the proper procedures. As Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, puts it quite frankly, “If other workers die, it’s not going to cost them that much.”
Department of Labor. About OSHA. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. https://www.osha.gov/aboutosha.
Exec. Order No. 13917, 3 C.F.R. 1 (2020). https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/05/01/2020-09536/delegating-authority-under-the-defense-production-act-with-respect-to-food-supply-chain-resources
Scheiber, N. (2020, October 22). OSHA Criticized for Lax Regulation of Meatpacking in Pandemic. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/22/business/economy/osha-coronavirus-meat.html?referringSource=articleShare.