COVID-19 deaths go uninvestigated as OSHA takes a hands-off approach to meatpacking plants

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.

Model Workplace Safety Program Includes Site of KS Death

Started in 1982, the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) run by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration exempts selected sites from regular workplace safety reviews. These sites' safety protocols are thoroughly reviewed before they are accepted into the program. But in Kansas, and elsewhere around the country, workers have died at these VPP sites.

Questions Arise About Kansas Refineries

Three Kansas communities with a combined population equal to that of Lawrence are at risk of exposure to a chemical that can be 100 times more lethal than carbon monoxide. The substance is hydrofluoric acid, which is used to make high-octane gasoline, and according to worst-case estimates that oil refiners in El Dorado, McPherson, and Coffeyville have provided to federal regulators, an accidental release could expose more than 92,000 nearby residents to dangerous levels through a toxic cloud. Within range are schools, residences, hospitals, and recreation areas.