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Smithfield Under OSHA Probe as It Defends Virus Safety Suit

April 27, 2020, 6:30 PM

Smithfield Foods Inc. will have to submit documents related to safety at its Missouri pork processing plant to federal safety regulators Tuesday, while the company faces a lawsuit for allegedly failing to protect workers from the novel coronavirus.

At least eight workers at the Milan, Mo., facility have had to stay home after showing Covid-19 symptoms.

The lawsuit, filed last week in a federal court in Missouri, came after reports that hundreds of employees at Smithfield’s plant in South Dakota contracted Covid-19. The company was forced to close that plant after it became the country’s leading hot spot. Also, workers at a Smithfield plant in Cudahy, Wis., raised concerns after that plant had more than two dozen confirmed cases.

The Rural Community Workers Alliance, which represents the Missouri employees, is seeking orders to force Smithfield to comply with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health officials, as well as other worker protection requirements. The meat-processing company asked the court for more time to respond to the alliance’s request, explaining that it must provide “comprehensive” information to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by Tuesday.

Judge Greg Kays agreed to give Smithfield until April 29 to respond to the alliance, with a videoconference hearing scheduled for April 30. Kays also ordered that Smithfield comply with and “follow all OSHA requirements and all guidance from CDC and other public authorities.”

OSHA and the CDC recently issued guidance to meat and poultry processors, advising companies to allow workers to follow basic preventative measures such as maintaining 6 feet of distance between one another and frequent hand washing.

Representatives from OSHA and Smithfield weren’t immediately available for comment.

Workspace Re-engineering Needed?

The workers’ lawsuit alleges that Smithfield, “in direct contravention of CDC guidelines,” provides insufficient personal protective equipment, forces workers to work shoulder to shoulder, and schedules their working time and breaks in a manner that forces workers to be crowded into cramped hallways and restrooms.

The workers want Smithfield to provide proper personal protective equipment, Covid-19-related sick leave, proper social distancing, staggered shifts, and a testing and contact-tracing protocol.

Brad Hiles, a safety attorney at Husch Blackwell LLP who’s not involved in the case, said “some workspaces may need to be re-engineered in certain facilities to maintain social distancing, and the re-engineering plans may not come naturally.”

Smithfield’s operations have been inspected five times in Missouri since February 2017, with two citations issued for amputation and hazard communication violations.

Hazard communication, or HazCom, is a set of procedures that employers and importers must implement to communicate hazards associated with chemicals during handling, shipping, and any form of exposure, according to OSHA. It’s the second most frequently cited standard following safety inspections.

The case is Rural Cmty. Workers Alliance v. Smithfield Foods, Inc., W.D. Mo., No. 20-cv-6063, order 4/26/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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