US labor authorities have fined Smithfield Packaged Meats Corporation for failing to protect employees from exposure to coronavirus — the government’s first Covid-19-related citation for a meatpacker.
The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed a penalty of $13,494, according to a Thursday announcement. The amount is the maximum allowed by law.
OSHA said it cited Smithfield for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause serious harm or death at its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The plant is one of the country’s largest pork processing facilities.
According to the Labor Department, 1,294 employees at Smithfield contracted coronavirus and four of them died this spring.
“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” said Sheila Stanley, the director for OSHA Sioux Falls in a statement. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”
The company told CNN Business in a statement that it didn’t agree with the OSHA citation, adding that it “took extraordinary measures on our own initiative” to keep employees as healthy and safe as possible.
“This OSHA citation is wholly without merit and we plan to contest it,” Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, said in a statement.
Lombardo that OSHA’s single citation comes “after an investigation that spanned many months and encompassed the review of over 20,000 pages of documents and 60 interviews.” She added that the citation was issued under a “general duty clause” for conditions that existed in March — roughly a month before OSHA issued guidelines for the meatpacking industry about how to deal with Covid-19.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which is the nation’s largest meatpacking union and represents the South Dakota workers, criticized the penalty as too weak.
“How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump Administration, clearly not much,” union president Marc Perrone said in a statement. “This so-called ‘fine’ is a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face of the thousands of American meatpacking workers who have been putting their lives on the line to help feed America since the beginning of this pandemic.”
The South Dakota plant closed in mid-April as employees fell ill. It re-opened in May.
“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” the meat processor’s chief executive, Kenneth Sullivan, said in a statement at the time of the closing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toured the plant later in April after it closed. Afterward, the CDC issued more than 100 recommendations to the Smithfield plant. Smithfield’s managers told the CDC it has a number of changes planned, including requiring facemasks for all employees, increasing the number of hand sanitizers and adding acrylic glass barriers where workers can’t be spaced out.