U.S. Issues New Coronavirus Safety Guidance for Meat, Poultry Plants

By | April 27, 2020

The U.S. Labor Department issued new guidelines on Sunday for U.S. meatpacking and meat-processing plants that have seen a rash of coronavirus outbreaks, saying employees should be spaced at least 6 feet (1.8 m) apart and screened before they start working.

The interim guidance from the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration also recommended temperature checks and the wearing of cloth face coverings as a protective measure.

The guidance was issued jointly with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As essential workers, those in the meatpacking and processing industries need to be protected from coronavirus for their own safety and health,” OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary, Loren Sweatt, said in a news release.

Excerpts from OSHA’s new interim guidance for meat and poultry processing workers and employers:

  • Configure communal work environments so that workers are spaced at least six feet apart, if possible. Use physical barriers to separate workers, if feasible.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation in work areas to help minimize potential exposures.
  • Add additional clock in/out stations, spaced apart, to reduce crowding in these areas.
  • Encourage single-file movement with six-foot distancing through the facility, where possible.
  • Stagger break times or provide temporary break areas and stagger workers’ arrival and departure times to avoid congregations.
  • Consider cohorting workers in which groups of workers are always assigned to the same shifts with the same coworkers.
  • CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings. Employers should provide readily available clean cloth face coverings (or disposable face mask options) for workers to use when the coverings become wet, soiled, or otherwise visibly contaminated.
  • Screening meat and poultry processing workers for COVID-19 symptoms (such as temperature checks) is an optional strategy that employers may use.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has spread widely through U.S. slaughterhouses where large groups of employees often work shoulder to shoulder.

More than 5,000 U.S. meat- and food-processing workers have been infected with or exposed to the new coronavirus, and 13 have died, the country’s largest meatpacking union said on Thursday.

Meat suppliers including Tyson Foods Inc., Brazilian-owned JBS USA, and WH Group Ltd.’s Smithfield Foods have all closed pork plants.

Despite Virus Outbreak, Midwest States Work to Keep Meat Plants Open

Many labor unions, Democrats and worker advocates have criticized OSHA for what they say has been an inadequate response to the pandemic. OSHA had recommended employers take various steps, rather than adopting emergency standards requiring them.

The slaughterhouse shutdowns are disrupting the U.S. food supply chain, crimping the availability of meat at retail stores and leaving farmers without outlets for their livestock.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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