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.

Opinion: OSHA and Big Meat should be investigated over COVID-19 response

Last month our worst fears were confirmed after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a pair of COVID-19 safety violation related fines against Big-Meat giants China WH-group owned Smithfield Foods and Brazilian-owned JBS. Mismanagement at Smithfield’s meat packing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota resulted in almost 13-hundred COVID-19 positive tests. Four plant workers died. JBS is equally culpable. At the JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colorado 290 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Six have died.

When workers are killed on small farms, OSHA’s hands are tied

Over the last four decades, many hundreds of employees have been killed or seriously injured without follow-up investigations by OSHA because small farms are exempt from agency scrutiny.
What’s more, because the exemption applies to all OSHA activities, agency inspectors also are barred from checking for hazards before injuries or deaths occur, and from responding to employee complaints about unsafe conditions.

Expect no farm safety legislation this year in Iowa

Support from Iowa lawmakers for stricter farm safety regulation does not exist in their new legislative session. This is despite agriculture being Iowa’s deadliest occupation and limited Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforcement and coverage.