Study finds that OSHA investigated 30% of meatpackers’ COVID outbreaks
KTTN News (MO)
May 6, 2022
Sky Chadde wrote this article for The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting via The Daily Yonder
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has food safety inspectors in every large meatpacking plant in the country. Just like the industry’s workers, the government’s inspectors entered the high-risk work spaces almost every day during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sonny Perdue, USDA’s leader during the pandemic’s critical first year, made clear he saw no role for the agency in protecting workers. That mostly fell to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Despite Perdue’s proclamations, however, the two agencies should have collaborated to ensure workers were safe from COVID-19 by leveraging USDA’s employees in plants to provide better oversight of the industry, the DOL’s Office of Inspector General concluded in a new report released Tuesday.
OSHA has been roundly criticized for failing to protect meatpacking workers from the coronavirus. In the pandemic’s first year, the agency doled out small fines to only a handful of plants, and it failed to inspect every plant where cases were publicly reported.
OSHA defended its approach in response to the inspector general’s office. The head of OSHA under former President Donald Trump, Loren Sweatt, has told Investigate Midwest the agency was dedicated to protecting workers.
The agency entered the pandemic with the fewest number of inspectors in its history. At the same time, the number of workplaces it has to oversee has increased.
Still, according to the inspector general’s report, OSHA should have identified what federal agencies oversaw high-risk industries – including meatpacking – and provided training to on-the-ground employees in how to assist with worker safety.
“Without delivering the necessary outreach and training, OSHA could not leverage the observations of external federal agencies’ enforcement or oversight personnel active on job sites regarding potential safety and health hazards,” the report reads.
Fostering collaboration with the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service was “particularly important” given the risk at meatpacking plants, the report said. More than 400 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19, according to Investigate Midwest tracking.
OSHA and FSIS had some history that made collaborating challenging, according to the report...
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