This story was originally published by The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has food safety inspectors in every large meatpacking plant in the country. Just like the industry’s workers, the government’s inspectors entered the high-risk work spaces almost every day during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sonny Perdue, USDA’s leader during the pandemic’s critical first year, made clear he saw no role for the agency in protecting workers. That mostly fell to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Despite Perdue’s proclamations, however, the two agencies should have collaborated to ensure workers were safe from COVID-19 by leveraging USDA’s employees in plants to provide better oversight of the industry, the DOL’s Office of Inspector General concluded in a new report released Tuesday.
OSHA has been roundly criticized for failing to protect meatpacking workers from the coronavirus. In the pandemic’s first year, the agency doled out small fines to only a handful of plants, and it failed to inspect every plant where cases were publicly reported.
OSHA defended its approach in responses to the inspector general’s office. The head of OSHA under former President Donald Trump, Loren Sweatt, has told Investigate Midwest the agency was dedicated to protecting workers.
The agency entered the pandemic with its fewest number of inspectors in its history. At the same time, the number of workplaces it has to oversee has increased.
Still, according to the inspector general’s report, OSHA should have identified what federal agencies oversaw high-risk industries — including meatpacking — and provided training to on-the-ground employees in how to assist with worker safety.
“Without delivering the necessary outreach and training, OSHA could not leverage the observations of external federal agencies’ enforcement or oversight personnel active on job sites regarding potential safety and health hazards,” the report reads.
Fostering collaboration with the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service was “particularly important” given the risk at meatpacking plants, the report said. More than 400 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19, according to Investigate Midwest tracking.
OSHA and FSIS had some history that made collaborating challenging, according to the report.
Before the pandemic, when FSIS inspectors would make a referral about potential worker safety violations to OSHA, OSHA would investigate FSIS, not the plant, according to the report. Because of this, FSIS inspectors were hesitant to refer possible violations.
OSHA said it “informally collaborated” with FSIS during the pandemic. Starting “early in 2020,” OSHA held weekly meetings with FSIS and other agencies where it “often” discussed the safety of meatpacking workers, the agency said in its response to the report.
OSHA “judged this effort to be far more fruitful than attempting to reach individual FSIS inspectors,” it said.
Sweatt didn’t reach out to FSIS’s head, Mindy Brashears, until mid-April 2020, weeks after the first reported COVID-19 case in a U.S. meatpacking plant and months after news of the contagious disease broke, according to emails obtained by Public Citizen.
“Is FSIS doing guidance for meatpackers in the world of Covid-19?” Sweatt asked Brashears on April 11, 2020. “If so, is there anything OSHA can do to be of assistance?”
Brashears then emailed back, saying she’d like to see any guidance documents OSHA had.
“It’s shocking how much OSHA deferred to USDA” on worker safety during the pandemic, Adam Pulver, the attorney at Public Citizen who obtained the records, has said about the emails.
During the pandemic’s first year, COVID-19 deaths had been reported at 65 plants. OSHA didn’t inspect 26 of them, according to an investigation by USA TODAY and Investigate Midwest.
The trend has continued, according to OSHA’s responses to the report. Investigate Midwest has tracked nearly 500 plants with reported COVID-19 cases. Between March 2020 and March 2022, OSHA conducted 157 inspections related to COVID-19 in the meatpacking industry.
Investigate Midwest is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools.
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