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U.S. issues first Covid-19 fine to meatpacking plant totaling $13,500

The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. | AP Photo/Stephen Groves

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its first Covid-19-related citation at a meatpacking plant on Thursday by proposing a $13,494 penalty on Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, S.D.

OSHA, part of the Labor Department, says the company failed to protect its employees from the coronavirus.

Worker advocates have been pressing for more attention and protections to address the risks faced by vulnerable populations — including farm and meatpacking labor — to Covid-19.

The penalty is the maximum allowed by law. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union called the fine “completely insufficient” and “insulting.”

Background: The pork processing plant closed in April after hundreds of employees tested positive for the coronavirus quickly making the plant one of the largest infection clusters in the country. Nearly 1,300 Smithfield workers contracted the virus and four employees died, according to the agency.

The outbreak drew national attention as federal and state authorities pressed Smithfield and other closed plants to reopen as soon as possible.

The South Dakota plant, responsible for 5 percent of the country’s pork processing played a hand in the backlog of hogs for slaughter, leading to shortages in stores, as POLITICO Pro previously reported.

OSHA has recommended — but not mandated — guidance employers can take to protect workers from the coronavirus, such as social distancing measures and the use of physical barriers, face shields and face coverings.

OSHA guidance also advises that employers provide safety and health information through training, visual aids and other means to communicate important safety warnings in various languages.

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Details: OSHA cited the company for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.

“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley said in the release. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”

The general duty clause, though rarely used by the Labor Department, allows OSHA to issue citations related to Covid-19 since no standard has been created.

UFCW International President Marc Perrone said the small penalty on a multi-million dollar company is the latest example of the agency’s failure to keep workers safe.

“If we truly care about protecting workers and our nation’s food supply during this pandemic, the federal government must take action, beginning with an enforceable national safety standard, increased access to PPE and COVID-19 testing, and rigorous proactive inspections,” Perrone said.

What’s next: Smithfield has 15 business days to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

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