Since close to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has tracked complaints it's received about the virus by industry. And through May of this year, agriculture — think crop farming, cattle ranching and the like — has had relatively few complaints.
Smithfield Foods has refused to say how many employees have fallen ill at its Milan, Missouri, plant. But OSHA records say at least two workers died and possibly as many as 300 had COVID-19 or had come into contact with someone who did.
ByKyle Bagenstose and Rachel Axon, USA TODAY; Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting |
Normally, a workplace death in the United States is met with a swift and thorough response.
By law, employers must report a death within eight hours to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. An inspector from OSHA typically arrives within a day to interview workers, review the site of the incident, and determine whether the death resulted from unsafe conditions. For workers in the meatpacking industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the system of swift reporting and next-day inspections that should protect them has broken down.
At least 239 meatpacking workers have died and 45,000 have contracted the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. But companies reported less than half that number of deaths to OSHA, a joint investigation by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center found. Experts say that's in large part because the agency weakened reporting requirements during the pandemic.
Even fewer deaths triggered the kind of robust investigation OSHA typically conducted before the pandemic.
As more and more Smithfield workers in South Dakota fell ill with COVID-19, the company's workers at a Missouri plant contended with policies that made social distancing almost impossible, according to an affidavit from a plant worker filed in a lawsuit last week.