During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some essential workplaces had multiple suspected clusters of infected workers. The meatpacking industry was particularly vulnerable to the virus due in part to processes that required employees to work in close contact for extended periods of time. Following these outbreaks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began inspections of meatpacking facilities, issuing citations where the agency believed employers were not taking adequate steps to protect workers.
Last week, OSHA announced a settlement with JBL Foods USA to resolve citations issued at two meatpackers’ facilities. The citations alleged failure to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards leading to five deaths and almost 300 positive cases among the workers. The settlement covers workers at seven facilities throughout the U.S. and will rely on a team of third-party experts to analyze work procedures to review engineering, work practice, and administrative controls. The measures are not limited to COVID-19 and will cover a range of infectious disease threats.
For employers outside the meatpacking industry, this settlement may foreshadow elements of the general industry infectious disease standard under development by OSHA. The review includes steps such as PPE stockpiling, ventilation improvements, employee and visitor screening protocols, and cleaning measures that could be part of a comprehensive safety standard applicable to a range of businesses. Even with the current predominance of less lethal COVID-19 variants, employers should remember that OSHA continues to expect companies to exercise best practices to prevent disease spread in the workplace.