OSHA gives giant coronavirus-spreading meatpacker, JBS, slap on the wrist
Workers on the meatpacking assembly line. | Photo courtesy of UFCW

WASHINGTON —The mega-giant meatpacking company JBS Foods received only a slap on the wrist for exposing workers at seven of its plants to the deadly coronavirus.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and JBS reached a settlement May 27 on the firm’s actions exposing workers to the pathogen in its plants. The settlement, which the United Food and Commercial Workers will help enforce, goes in a good direction, however, by mandating JBS develop and implement “an infectious disease preparedness plan.” The fine the company must pay, however, is only a slap on the wrist for a wealthy entity like JBS – just $14,502.00

UFCW had no immediate comment on the settlement or its role in monitoring anti-coronavirus measures at pork and beef plants in Greeley, Colo., Beardstown, Ill., Grand Island and Omaha, Neb., Cactus, Texas, Souderton, Pa., and Green Bay, Wis.

Problems continue at JBS, though, OSHA records show. The inspections were for coronavirus exposure in 2020. Since then, it’s been a different story at JBS: No coronavirus violations, but quite a few others—including a fatal accident in March 2021 at Grand Island.

To battle the virus, OSHA and UFCW will recommend a team of company and independent experts develop and implement the plans. The team will review JBS’s current safety and health plans and procedures. It will recommend engineering and work practice changes—such as visitor and employee screening, better ventilation, and frequent cleaning—to prevent virus spread and identify and stock personal protective equipment.

OSHA went after JBS after coronavirus outbreaks in Greeley, shutting it on April 13, 2020, and Green Bay, shutting it on April 26. Both plants were closed for two weeks for disinfection. Five Greeley workers died, 51 were hospitalized and 290 tested positive for the virus.

Two workers died in Green Bay and 147 tested positive on April 22, four days before the OSHA-ordered shutdown. Green Bay’s positive case toll was 357, as of late August 2020.

OSHA’s settlement with the meatpacker occurred two weeks after the House Oversight Committee released an extensive report detailing how meatpacking executives successfully lobbied the Republican Trump regime to declare meat plant workers “essential,” forcing them to stay on the job even when their bosses didn’t protect them.

The panel concluded the meatpacking honchos and their lobbyists almost literally wrote Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s “essential workers” executive order. That Trump manipulation angered UFCW President Marc Perrone, whose union includes 250,000 meat packing plant workers.

“We already knew the Trump administration’s negligence and unethical actions endangered meatpacking workers and their families at the height of the pandemic,”  he said.

“UFCW repeatedly sounded the alarm about…failed oversight of the industry and its inability to protect the people that kept food on our tables. Their failure was not only tragic but a deliberate attempt to put industry profits ahead of people just trying to make a living.”

Perrone said UFCW would work with lawmakers to approve “a comprehensive meat processing safety bill.” UFCW reports that two years into the pandemic, 24,395 of its meatpacking plant worker-members have tested positive for the virus and at least 135 have died. Other reports, including from the House committee, have higher death tolls.

Meanwhile, problems—and OSHA inspections—at JBS continue.

In the worst instance, OSHA hit JBS at Grand Island after, to quote its own summary: “At 10:30 a.m. on March 27, 2021, an employee was installing a paddle wheel in a raceway after the completion of an airline replacement/upgrade in the bottom of the raceway. The employee was struck by a 2,500-pound paddle wheel after the trolley and chain hoist used to secure the paddle wheel failed causing it to fall off the overhead I-beam. The employee suffered a fractured neck and was killed.”

OSHA found ten serious violations and wants to fine JBS $58,709 combined. JBS says it fixed the problem by October and is contesting the fines.

And OSHA inspectors were at Grand Island this past March—and proposed another $14,502 fine—after a “serious” accident involving an injury at a machine. In late 2021, JBS settled a lockout/tagout violation at Green Bay by paying a $10,728 fine. And it’s contesting another “serious” lockout/tagout violation last July at Grand Island. OSHA proposes a $13,653 fine for that.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. John Wojcik es editor en jefe de People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

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