OSHA, South Dakota pork plant settle coronavirus complaint

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FILE – Employees of two departments at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. report to work on Monday, May 4, 2020, as the plant moved to reopen after a coronavirus outbreak infected workers. Federal workplace safety regulators announced Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, they have reached an agreement with Smithfield Foods to settle a contested citation of the company’s coronavirus safety measures during a massive outbreak last year at a South Dakota pork processing plant. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Federal workplace safety regulators announced Monday that they have reached an agreement with Smithfield Foods to settle a contested citation of the company’s coronavirus safety measures during a massive outbreak last year at a South Dakota pork processing plant.

Under the agreement, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods will develop a plan to prevent infectious diseases at meatpacking plants nationwide and pay a $13,500 fine.

Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant was one the nation’s worst COVID-19 hotspots during the early days of the pandemic. By June 16, 2020, four workers were dead and nearly 1,300 had tested positive for the virus, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. After an investigation,the federal agency said Smithfield did not do enough to space workers out or provide other safety measures such as face coverings or physical barriers.

However, the company contested that assessment and defended its actions at a time when safety precautions against COVID-19 were not clear.

Smithfield’s spokesman, Jim Monroe, said the company admitted no wrongdoing and called OSHA’s allegations “baseless.”

“Settling with OSHA and avoiding litigation allows Smithfield to continue the good relations it has with the agency, as we have the shared goal of workplace safety,” he said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers had previously derided the $13,500 fine as a “slap on the wrist.”

Employees at the plant have said Smithfield did not do enough last year to prevent infections in the plant, where workers labored elbow-to-elbow as they processed nearly 5% of the country’s pork. The union at the plant has said that it had been attempting to negotiate for more coronavirus protections leading up to the outbreak. After cases kept accumulating, Smithfield shuttered its plant for nearly three weeks.

Smithfield has agreed to work with third-party experts to develop a new plan to prevent diseases from spreading in plants, which will include an assessment of medical safety measures from meatpacking plants’ administration on down to personal protective equipment for workers on butchering lines.

Smithfield has agreed to work with third-party experts to develop a new plan to prevent diseases from spreading in plants, which will include an assessment of medical safety measures from meatpacking plants’ administration on down to personal protective equipment for workers on butchering lines.

Smithfield already had a prevention plan in the works and is now focused on vaccinating its entire workforce against COVID-19, Monroe said.

OSHA’s regional administrator, Jennifer Rous, warned that a comprehensive plan was necessary.

“What happened at this facility was tragic and we must ensure that all steps in the agreement are followed to prevent a mass outbreak from happening again,” she said.

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