The General Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report that urges the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to directly address risks faced by meat and poultry processing workers, that were amplified by the COVID pandemic.
Strikingly, the GAO report cites two studies conducted by OSHA’s Office of Occupational Medicine and Nursing that concluded the risk of COVID infection among meat packing plant workers to be 56X to more than 70X greater than the average risk in their respective states. The key characteristics contributing to the higher risk delineated in the report are:
The report found that conventional, layered approaches to mitigating transmission were employed at most processing plants, such as mask requirements, 6-foot spacing between workers, physical barriers placed between adjacent workers, one-way hallways, etc. Some approaches, had the effect of hindering worker productivity (e.g., physical barriers) or reducing overall plant processing rates (e.g., 6-foot spacing).
An important finding was that even when the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) granted waivers to the maximum processing speed plants were allowed to operate at - allowing plants to process birds faster to compensate for increased spacing between workers - the rates of COVID infection were actually higher for the waiver-granted plants than for plants that continued to process at normal rates.
This provides solid evidence of the need for improved approaches to protecting worker health - and preventing deterioration of plant processing speeds - beyond the conventional approaches of masking, distancing, and physical barriers.