Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.
While the White House plans to sign an executive order to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued joint interim guidance to address the widespread infection rate of the coronavirus among workers in beef, poultry and pork processing plants. The guidance claims to balance the need to protect workers with support for continuing critical operations. More than a dozen plants have closed as a result of hundreds of workers testing positive for COVID-19 within individual facilities. One facility had over 600 workers infected. At least one news source reported that at least 73 meatpacking and processed food plants have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and at least 15 meatpacking plants and three processed food plants are currently closed. At least 3,581 workers are confirmed sick and at least 17 have died. The guidance supplements rather than replaces other guidance.
The guidance reiterates that the virus most often spreads as a result of respiratory droplets being transferred from one person to another, whether sick or asymptomatic, when they are within six feet of each other and someone coughs, sneezes or talks. Although not as common, the virus also spreads by someone touching a surface and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
The Work Environment
This industry is part of this country’s critical infrastructure. Without it, there would be no meat or poultry at stores or restaurants. The employees who work the assembly lines shoulder to shoulder at these facilities are considered “essential workers” who can continue working even after being exposed to people infected with the virus if they follow minimum CDC guidelines.1 These workers are not exposed to the virus through the meat products they handle. Rather, work environments with processing lines and other busy areas in plants where workers are in close contact may substantially contribute to exposure. In addition to working close to one another on processing lines, workers at these facilities often are in close contact and not able to social distance when clocking in or out, during breaks, where they change clothes, and while traveling to and from work in shared transportation. The risk of infection increases among these workers because these close contacts occur for extended periods as many work 10 to12-hour shifts and associate with one another outside of work.
The Assessment & Control Plan to Reduce Exposures
OSHA laid out extensive measures for meat and poultry facilities to implement by identifying a qualified workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 assessment and control planning who is also accessible to employees with COVID-19 concerns. This assessment and plan goes far beyond an existing hazard communication plan, which must also be up-to-date. The plan should apply to everyone entering the facility. To address the hazard created by potential exposures, a comprehensive plan will consider various screening methods for those entering the facility, contact tracing to identify exposed employees, engineering and administrative controls to limit exposures including the use of appropriate PPE and improved sanitation. The hierarchy of controls requires that an employer eliminate processes that create exposure where possible and that engineering controls be used, if available, before employers resort to administrative controls.
OSHA’s primary focus is on social distancing, improving air ventilation and sanitation. To create Social Distancing, facilities can:
- Change productions practices to increase space between workers
- Modify alignment of workstations so workers do not face each other
- Stagger reporting and break times
- Cohort teams to limit each worker’s exposure to their team
- Add additional shifts to reduce number of workers on each shift
- Use markings and signs to remind workers to maintain distance
- Use physical barriers (e.g., strip curtains, Plexiglas or other dividers/partitions)
- Create one-way traffic flow through facility
- Rearrange chairs/tables and add partitions to tables in rest and break areas
- Identify additional areas where employees can take breaks
- Add additional time clocks or introduce new method for time entry
- Add transportation options and limit number of passengers in vehicles
To improve Air Ventilation, HVAC engineers should ensure adequate ventilation to reduce exposures. And, fans that help with heat hazards that often blow air at workers should be redesigned or removed to prevent the spread of airborne or aerosolized viruses.
To improve Sanitation, facilities should:
- Add several hand-washing stations and hand sanitizers throughout the facility with at least 60% alcohol
- Offer extra breaks to wash or sanitize hands (up to one break every 30 minutes where possible)
- Use no-touch water, sanitizers, tissue dispensers and trash cans
- Clean and disinfect tools regularly, at least as often as tools change hands
- Clean physical barriers, doors and commonly touched items at least every shift
- Clean and disinfect common areas
- Ensure proper coughing/sneezing etiquette
- Use face coverings (discussed below)
To Screen people as they enter the facility, OSHA suggests what has become the customary controls from checking temperatures to verbally confirming a person does not have symptoms. Viral and antibody testing are potential new options as their efficacy improves. However, OSHA reminds employers that they must keep any medical record (temperature, viral screening, etc.) for 30 years after employment. 29 CFR 1910.1020(d)(1). Ensuring ill workers do not come to work and that they are not contagious when they return are necessary to limit exposure. The workers screening others as they enter the facility must be protected by using physical barriers/dividers or rope and stanchion systems, to maintain at least six feet between screeners and the workers being screened. Screeners who are within six feet of workers must have appropriate PPE such as gloves, gown, face shield and N95 respirator or face mask.
Additional ways to reduce potential exposures include:
- Modify sick leave to ensure sick employees are not at work
- Ensure workers are not penalized for taking sick leave
- Advance sick leave or allow donations of leave
- Signage (stay home, sneeze etiquette, sanitization) at entrance, break areas and locker rooms in all the languages common in the workplace
The New Normal – Face Coverings
Face coverings are a top infection control method certain to be used in most workplaces. Unlike N95 respirators and surgical masks, face coverings are not PPE. The CDC first suggested that anyone who cannot stay at least six feet away from others in public should wear a face covering as it reduces the spread of the virus by that person who does not know they are infected when they talk, sneeze or cough. Many states and localities have face covering orders that range from requiring everyone in public to only certain employees to wear them. OSHA leaves it up to employers to decide whether their control plans or applicable local laws require face coverings. But, if face coverings are used, employers should ensure the coverings are made with appropriate material and designed to fit comfortably, yet snuggly, without restricting breathing. OSHA suggests that meat and poultry processors use face shields to protect face coverings from process-related splashes and other contamination. Where face coverings are used, employers must provide clean, dry face coverings to replace wet, soiled or contaminated ones.
Training and Proper PPE Must be Part of the Plan
OSHA reminds employers that training records must be kept up-to-date. And, in the current pandemic, employers must provide workers additional training on COVID-19 hazards including not to touch their nose, mouth, or eyes with unwashed hands. Workers should know the signs and symptoms of infection and how to prevent exposure through proper cough/sneeze etiquette, handwashing/sanitization, social distancing, and how to properly use face coverings and PPE like gloves and face shields.
Once the employer conducts its hazard assessment and determines what PPE is needed, OSHA warns employers to consider additional hazards created by poorly fitting PPE (e.g., mask ties that dangle or catch, PPE that is loose and requires frequent adjustment or tends to fall off) with respect to the work environment (e.g., machinery in which PPE could get caught). OSHA further suggests using disposable PPE, and that non-disposable PPE remain at the facility. Face shields are recommended with face coverings, as discussed above, and they can replace some safety glasses, which may fog up when used with a face covering. Face shields, like all PPE, should be cleaned and decontaminated after each shift.
Given the number of infections and deaths of workers in meat and poultry processing facilities, OSHA will be conducting inspections of these employers. This guidance will serve as a checklist of items an OSHA Investigator will determine whether a facility has implemented. OSHA likely considers this guidance notice to employers of possible abatement methods that they should take. Following this guidance may assist employers in demonstrating the good faith that OSHA claims it will consider in exercising its discretion whether to issue citations. Employers in the meat and poultry industry that need assistance interpreting and implementing this guidance should consult counsel.
1 The guidelines permit exposed employees to continue working so long as they remain asymptomatic, the employer takes the employee’s temperature before entering the facility for work, the employee self-monitors for symptoms, wears a N95 or surgical mask for 14 days, practices social distancing by maintaining six feet from others as work duties permit, and the facility is routinely cleaned and disinfected.