MINNEAPOLIS – Federal recommendations meant to keep meatpacking workers safe as they return to plants that were shuttered by the coronavirus have little enforcement muscle behind them, fueling anxiety that working conditions could put employees' lives at risk.
Guidance issued last month by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that meatpacking companies erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations, among other steps. But the guidance is not mandatory.
The pandemic is “the most massive workers' safety crisis in many decades, and OSHA is in the closet. OSHA is hiding,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who was the agency's assistant secretary of labor under President Barack Obama. Michaels called on OSHA to make the guidelines mandatory and enforceable, which would include the threat of fines.
OSHA's general guidance plainly says the recommendations are advisory and “not a standard or regulation,” and they create “no new legal obligations.”
But the guidance also says employers must follow a law known as the general duty clause, which requires companies to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. Critics say that rule is unlikely to be enforced, especially after President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April aimed at keeping meat plants open.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made clear in letters this month that the Department of Agriculture expected state and local officials to work with meat plants to keep them running.
Meatpackers JBS, Smithfield and Tyson have said worker safety is their priority. They provided the AP with summaries of their efforts to improve safety, but the plans have not been made public.