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Groups push OSHA for temporary meatpacking standard

poultry plant

The Centers for Food Safety and the Food Chain Workers Alliance have filed a rulemaking petition with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, urging the agency to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers in the meat and poultry processing industries.

The petition, filed Monday with the U.S. Department of Labor’s principal deputy assistant secretary, Loren Sweatt, argues that workers in meat and poultry processing plants are not being adequately protected from COVID-19. It said this lack of protection could lead to community spread, affect job performance and potentially hamper the safety of the country’s meat and poultry supply.

On April 26, OSHA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance for the industry the same day that President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act and issued an executive order requiring meat and poultry processing plants to remain open during the pandemic.

“Instead of unenforceable guidance, OSHA must immediately promulgate an (emergency temporary standard)  to protect all workers at meat and poultry processing plants,” wrote the attorneys for the Portland, Oregon-based Centers for Food Safety and the Los Angeles-based Food Chain Workers Alliance. “Without a mandatory (emergency temporary standard) in place that specifically focuses on the unique and grave threats from COVID-19, workers are unlikely to be protected and the spread of the virus throughout these plants and their surrounding communities is almost certain to worsen.”

More than 115 meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states have reported workers infected with COVID-19, the CDC said in a report released May 1. The industry, which employs about 130,000 workers, has recorded 20 deaths and nearly 5,000 cases, the agency said.

Petitions for rulemaking “can be significant, as they put pressure on regulatory agencies to move forward with regulations,” said Cressinda Schlag, an associate in the Austin, Texas, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. “If the agency moves forward with issuing an emergency temporary standard, new requirements under the emergency temporary standard will often take immediate effect until superseded by a permanent standard, which can have significant implications on businesses and their compliance obligations.”

The petition asks that any emergency temporary standard include, at a minimum:

  • The development of a COVID-19 assessment and control plan at each plant.
  • Physical distancing measures and physical barriers to separate workers.
  • Essential protective gear, including face masks, provided by the plants for each worker.
  • A prohibition on sick workers from coming to work and paid leave and health care for those workers.
  • Slower line speeds, if necessary.
  • Education and training for all workers on reducing the spread of COVID-19.
  • Regular cleaning and disinfection of tools and equipment.
  • A process for notifying workers of possible exposure if a worker is confirmed to have COVID-19.
  • Increased plant inspections by OSHA to ensure compliance.

More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here.