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OSHA Fine Against Smithfield Foods is “Weak and Inadequate,” say Safety Advocates

Friday, September 11, 2020
Press Contacts: 

Roger Kerson, Roger@nationalcosh.org, 734.645.0535

OSHA Fine Against Smithfield Foods is
“Weak and Inadequate,” say Safety Advocates

Former agency chief David Michaels disputes claim that “maximum penalty”
was issued against meatpacking firm for failure to protect workers from COVID-19

LOS ANGELES – A proposed fine against pork producer Smithfield Foods for failing to protect workers against COVID-19 is “weak and inadequate,” the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said today.

“After months of silence about the deadliest pandemic in the history of the agency, we finally heard from U.S. OSHA, and they barely made a sound” said National COSH Co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez.  “A weak and inadequate penalty against a multibillion-dollar company sends exactly the wrong message – that workers are expendable and employers can ignore life-threatening hazards with little or no consequences.”

Yesterday, OSHA proposed a $13,494 fine against Smithfield for just one safety violation, after a COVID-19 outbreak at its South Dakota plant that killed four workers, and sent 43 to the hospital, with more than 1,300 recorded infections.

OSHA claims this penalty – less than $3,400 for each worker death, and $1.03 for each worker infected – is “the maximum allowed by law.”

Dr. David Michaels, an epidemiologist at the George Washington University School of Public Health who headed OSHA from 2009 through 2017, disagrees.

"OSHA could have issued numerous citations, one for each of the many ways in which Smithfield Foods failed to protect workers,” said Dr. Michaels. “And if OSHA asserted these violations were willful, the penalty could be ten times as high. OSHA went very, very easy on Smithfield."

“Workers at meatpacking plants and many other workplaces are facing deadly risks every day to keep the rest of us alive,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, also a co-executive director of National COSH. “We know that science-based protections – including social distancing, physical barriers, improved ventilation and other measures – can reduce risks and save lives. Smithfield failed to protect workers, and OSHA failed to hold them accountable.”

As of September 10, the Food and Environment Reporting Network has documented more than 58,000 COVID-19 infections and 249 deaths among meatpacking, food processing and farmworkers in the United States.

COVID-19 resources available from National COSH:

  • COVID-19 fatality database, with public reports of more than 700 workers who have died after exposure from COVID-19. This represents just a fraction of total workplace fatalities from the pandemic.
  • “A Safe and Just Return to Work,” a National COSH report with recommendations for keeping workers safe during COVID 19 from labor and community advocates, industrial hygienists, occupational health experts, attorneys, and physicians.
  • Coronavirus Resources for Workers, including fact sheets by industry and occupation, guidelines on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and safe cleaning chemicals; information on Workers’ Compensation and other benefits, and more.

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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.