Meatpacking safety recommendations are largely unenforceable

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FILE - In this May 7, 2020, file photo, workers leave the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Ind. Federal recommendations meant to keep meatpacking workers safe as they return to plants that were shuttered by the coronavirus have little enforcement muscle behind them, fueling anxiety that working conditions could put employees' lives at risk. Major meatpackers JBS, Smithfield and Tyson have said worker safety is their highest priority. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

MINNEAPOLIS – Federal recommendations meant to keep meatpacking workers safe as they return to plants that were shuttered by the coronavirus have little enforcement muscle behind them, fueling anxiety that working conditions could put employees' lives at risk.

Extensive guidance issued last month by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that meatpacking companies erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations, among other steps. But the guidance is not mandatory.

“It’s like, ‘Here’s what we’d like you to do. But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to,’” said Mark Lauritsen, international vice president and director of the food processing and meatpacking division for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

The pandemic is “the most massive workers’ safety crisis in many decades, and OSHA is in the closet. OSHA is hiding,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who was the agency's assistant secretary of labor under President Barack Obama. Michaels called on OSHA to make the guidelines mandatory and enforceable, which would include the threat of fines.

OSHA’s general guidance plainly says the recommendations are advisory and “not a standard or regulation," and they create "no new legal obligations.”

But the guidance also says employers must follow a law known as the general duty clause, which requires companies to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. Critics say that rule is unlikely to be enforced, especially after President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April aimed at keeping meat plants open.

Already, examples have emerged of questionable enforcement efforts and pressure to keep plants running:

— Shortly before Trump's order, state regulators in Iowa declined to inspect a Tyson Foods pork plant despite a complaint alleging workers had been exposed to the virus in crowded conditions. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show Iowa's OSHA agency took 2 1/2 weeks to contact Tyson, get a response and conclude that the company's voluntary efforts to improve social distancing at the Perry plant were “satisfactory." Within a week later, 730 workers — almost 60% of the workforce — had tested positive.