More than 1,000 workers at the plant tested positive for the virus, and four of them died. During the early days of the pandemic, the plant became a symbol of the hazards faced by front-line essential workers who clock in to put food on the tables of homebound Americans.
The OSHA citation, dated Tuesday, is one of just a handful the agency has issued so far against three employers nationwide related to COVID-19. The modest fine is the maximum the agency can issue for what it deems a “serious” violation of workplace safety laws, though it can issue fines of $134,937 for “willful” or “repeated” violations.
A spokesman for Smithfield did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment and asking whether the company would appeal.
Employers often fight fines or negotiate with the agency to lower them even when they are small.
OSHA has drawn criticism for the small number of inspections and citations it has pursued so far related to the coronavirus. Workers filed more than 8,000 complaints against their employers alleging hazards. The citation issued this week is the most high profile yet and the first to hit the meatpacking industry, which has lost more than 100 workers to COVID-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley said in a statement. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”
More than 1,000 workers from that facility tested positive for the virus, and four of them died.
OSHA relied on its general duty clause — a broad requirement in an otherwise specific set of work safety rules — to fine Smithfield. The clause says that an employer must provide a workplace free from hazards that are likely to cause harm or death. Because OSHA has issued no new regulations related to the coronavirus, the general duty clause is one of the few bases it has to punish companies.
Specifically, OSHA said Smithfield “did not develop or implement timely and effective measures to mitigate exposures” to the coronavirus. Between March 22 and June 16, an estimated 1,294 workers from the plant tested positive for the virus, the citation said. In addition to the four who died, another 39 were hospitalized.
Workers at plants around the country complained about working shoulder-to-shoulder on the processing lines and having to get dressed in crowded locker rooms, particularly back in the spring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out guidelines for meatpacking plants to protect workers from the virus, but those were essentially recommendations with no legal bite.
Many companies appear to have fretted more about the meat supply than the safety of their workers. Smithfield Foods’ chief executive, Kenneth Sullivan, sent a letter to Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) in March calling social distancing “a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops,” ProPublica reported.
Some workplace safety experts said they were disappointed in how small the Smithfield fine was and how long it took the agency to issue it. OSHA has six months from the date of an alleged hazard to issue a fine and often uses the bulk of that time to build its case. But the effect would have been greater months ago, said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA official now with the National Employment Law Project.
The citation “would have saved lives in that plant and the rest of the industry if [it] got out earlier,” she said in an email.
The fine was “an infinitesimal fraction” of Smithfield’s annual earnings and a sign there were “no real consequences” for endangering workers during the pandemic, the Public Justice Food Project, a legal group that sued OSHA during the pandemic, said in a statement.
“We’ll know OSHA officials are upholding the law again when they act immediately to force workplace policy changes that prevent a clear outbreak in the making, not when they react with less than a slap on the wrist months later,” the project said.