WATERLOO — Workers groups are asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take emergency measures to protect employees at meatpacking facilities from the coronavirus.
The Center for Food Safety and Food Chain Workers Alliance filed a legal rule-making petition with the U.S. Department of Labor on Monday in response to the high percentage of workers who have contracted COVID-19.
“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.
He said the administration is “sending meatpacking workers to their deaths” by declaring facilities to be essential infrastructure with only voluntary safety measures suggested by OSHA.
The action doesn’t specifically mention the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo, which announced in April it would begin a voluntary temporary shutdown following an outcry over safety concerns and a spike in COVID-19 cases.
On Tuesday, state officials announced outbreaks at five production businesses, four of which were meatpacking plants.
The Tyson plant in Waterloo had 444 positive cases, which represents about 17 percent of all the employees tested. The Iowa Premium/National Beef plant in Tama had 258 cases for 39 percent of the employees tested.
Other outbreaks include Tyson in Columbus junction with 221 cases for 26 percent; and Tyson in Perry with 730 cases for 58 percent.
According to the groups, more than 5,000 meat and poultry plant workers nationwide have been struck by the coronavirus and at least 20 workers have died.
“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,” Talbott said.
The workers groups said unprotected and sick workers are more likely to make mistakes, increasing the risk of tainted meat.
The petition is requesting plants develop a COVID-19 response plan, clean and disinfect equipment, implement social distancing and physical barriers for workers during their shifts, provide protective equipment and slow line speeds if they pose a threat to worker or food safety. The groups area also asking that plants prohibit sick employees from coming to work and continue to pay and provide health care.
The petition also asks OSHA to increase inspections.
On Friday, Black Hawk County officials met with operators of the Waterloo Tyson Fresh Meats facility to discuss progress in efforts to make the plant safe and “see the amount of massive improvements that they are demonstrating,” said Sheriff Tony Thompson.
“We look forward to continuing that dialogue. They have not indicated to us that they want to open yet, even though there is this federal request out by President Trump, and that was also encouraging to us,” Thompson said. “They did indicate they want us at the table. They want partnership with community and community leaders.”
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