This photo from a GAO report on meatpacking plants shows workers during normal working conditions.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, working hard in cold temperatures and yelling to be heard over machinery contributed to high rates of COVID-19 infections in meatpacking plants, especially early in the pandemic. 

The federal agencies charged with overseeing meat plants and their workers — the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor — failed to collaborate to protect worker health, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday. 

The GAO recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigate the dangers associated with meat and poultry processing, especially infectious diseases, and determine what actions are needed to better protect workers.

The GAO is a nonpartisan government agency that provides Congress with reports on government agencies and programs. 

More than 86,000 meatpacking workers contracted coronavirus and 423 died before October 2021, according to Investigate Midwest tracking. 

The GAO found meatpacking plant workers were particularly at risk of contracting the virus. At a large plant in South Dakota, the risk of infection was 70 times the risk to the general population. At another plant in Wisconsin, the incident rate was 56 times higher than the incident rate among all working age adults.

The DOL and USDA have “longstanding challenges” when it comes to collaboration, officials in both agencies told the GAO. 

“OSHA and FSIS have not identified an approach to reconciling their differing missions to achieve the common goal of protecting meat and poultry workers,” the report states. 

Two previous reports by the DOL’s Office of Inspector General — one in April 2022 and another in November 2022 — criticized OSHA for failing to protect workers in the meat industry. 

FSIS is charged with inspecting the safety of food products, while OSHA’s mission is to reduce workers’ risk of injury and illness. 

FSIS inspectors work inside more than 5,500 meat and poultry plants around the country, according to the GAO report.

Employers are responsible for following OSHA regulations and ensuring their employees’ safety. Therefore, FSIS was also responsible for its inspectors’ working conditions during the pandemic, even though the inspectors worked inside privately-owned meat processing plants.

Government emails obtained by Public Citizen in 2021 showed that FSIS and OSHA waited until months into the pandemic — after a meat plant had already shut down due to COVID-19 spread — to collaborate on a response.

A 2017 GAO report detailed the lack of collaboration between the agencies. Some of the dysfunction between the agencies was attributed to the fact that when FSIS inspectors reported health and safety issues at the plants they worked in, OSHA inspected FSIS, rather than the company that owned the plant.

The GAO recommended in Tuesday’s report that both agencies meet regularly to resolve the collaboration challenges. 

During the pandemic, OSHA failed to investigate many deaths of meatpacking workers. Some of its investigations into worker deaths were “rapid response” investigations, in which OSHA inspectors did not visit the plant, but instead asked questions over the phone, fax or email.

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Madison McVan is from Pflugerville, Texas, where she discovered her love for journalism while working at her high school newspaper. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2020 with degrees...