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Federal food inspectors say they were not evacuated to shelters during Nebraska's severe storms

Posted at 6:24 PM, Dec 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-30 19:24:32-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — It was a day with extremely high winds, trees coming down and small tornadoes in Nebraska and Iowa.

While many in the area took shelter, a complaint by the union that represents federal food inspectors in the Omaha-area claims inspectors were not given shelter; instead, they remained on the floor of three meatpacking plants in Omaha and another in Crete.

“This storm, they had two to three hours' notice that it was coming and they chose to do nothing,” said Eric Rothell, president of the union that represents federal inspectors in southeast Nebraska.

During the derecho, which occurred on Dec. 15 with numerous tornadoes reported in Nebraska and Iowa, thoughts of the recent tornadoes in Kentucky passed through Rothell’s mind.

Several employees at various businesses died in Kentucky and Illinois when they were left to work during a December storm, which occurred less than a week before the one in Nebraska and Iowa.

“Because of what happened down in Kentucky, and because of the warning they had with this storm, to allow this and not remove our people was a bad thing. It shouldn’t have happened,” said Rothell.

A report filed with federal regulatory agency OSHA, claims dozens of inspectors were left on the floor of four meatpacking plants in Nebraska, and says the USDA should have instead taken them to shelter due to storm sirens sounding because of severe wind warnings.

Zach Wickersham, who was inspecting one of the Omaha plants at the time, says his supervisor consulted agency management when the threat began.

“Ultimately, they decided to do nothing,” said Wickersham.

“When something is really off like that, you would think they would want to take it a bit more seriously.”

It appears that OSHA may have already dismissed the incident.

The federal agency did not respond to calls and a voicemail on Thursday, but a voicemail message that Rothell received seems to be an OSHA employee stating after a USDA investigation: "It looks like they did put everybody into the storm shelter and followed protocols, so I’m going to go ahead and close that."

Wickersham said he was never contacted by anybody for an investigation.

“I was expecting to be contacted by somebody from OSHA and never did,” said Wickersham.

“The kind of impression I’m getting on this is one agency is taking care of another agency and trying to push it all under the rug.”

When asked about the incident by 3 News Now, Nikki Richardson with JBS said they did not evacuate their employees but that, "We were prepared to suspend operations if and when a 'warning' was declared, which occurred after we ended production for the day. Had the weather event escalated more quickly than it did, we would have immediately sheltered our team members inside the facility."

In other words, OSHA said all four plants got people into storm shelters while JBS said they would have sent workers to shelters if the storm worsened.

While no tornado warning in eastern Douglas County happened that day, two warnings were triggered for western Douglas County and the sirens went off throughout the county due to incoming hurricane-like winds in excess of 75 miles per hour.

A spokesperson for the food safety and inspection service told 3 News Now it was tough to get clear answers due to the holidays, but said in a statement during severe weather “supervisors implement the necessary actions required to keep our employees out of harm’s way.”

Both inspectors just want the problem solved before next time could be even worse.

“These packing houses are dangerous to work in. You’ve got knives, you’ve got carcasses hanging from the ceilings and we could have easily lost someone’s life if a tornado would have hit here,” said Rothell.

The four plants included in the complaint are JBS, Greater Omaha Packing and Nebraska Beef in Omaha, and Smithfield Foods in Crete.

The union tells 3 News Now this is not the first time something like this happened and if OSHA ultimately does nothing, their next steps may be to talk to their congress members.

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