Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A meatpacking worker in Montgomery County died of coronavirus. Could it have been prevented?

There are barely any enforceable workplace safety laws focused on essential workers forced to work during the pandemic. But it doesn't have to be that way, a former OSHA staffer says.

JBS Beef in Souderton, Pa., closed due to COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.
JBS Beef in Souderton, Pa., closed due to COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

On April 3, Enock Benjamin died in his home from respiratory failure brought on by the coronavirus.

Benjamin, a 70-year-old Haitian immigrant who lived in Northeast Philadelphia, worked at a beef processing plant in Souderton run by JBS, the largest meat producer in the world. As of last week, at least 17 of his coworkers had tested positive, according to the union that represents them. Almost 1,400 people work across two facilities in Souderton.

Meanwhile, near Hazleton, Pa., 162 workers at the Cargill meat packaging plant have tested positive for the virus, Wendell Young, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents the workers, said Monday evening. That plant employs about 900 workers.

The companies say they will take a number of precautions to make conditions safer. But worker health and safety experts say employees at JBS and other meat processing plants — largely immigrants and people of color — will remain at risk, so long as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the federal agency in charge of protecting workers on the job, fails to act.

"They have received thousands of complaints and they have not done one citation,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a top OSHA staffer during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. “So the message is clear to employers in the meat industry that already cut corners on safety.”

Even before the risks posed by the coronavirus, meat processing plants were notoriously dangerous. They are cold, wet, and slippery warehouses where workers stand shoulder to shoulder and speed is the name of the game.

One worker, Bosco Htoo, was killed on the job at the Souderton plant last summer — OSHA did not cite JBS after it completed its investigation, according to federal records. Instead, it made several workplace safety suggestions that could prevent such a death in the future. It’s another example of the hands-off approach OSHA has taken under the Trump administration, said Berkowitz, who now runs the worker health and safety program at the Washington-based National Employment Law Project.

» READ MORE: ‘It’s terrifying’: Corrections officers say jails aren’t doing enough to protect them as coronavirus spreads

Barely any laws protecting essential workers’ safety during pandemic

There are barely any enforceable federal laws on worker safety during the coronavirus pandemic, Berkowitz said. The only relevant standards require the use of personal protective equipment and respirators.

That’s because OSHA hasn’t created any coronavirus-specific standards or chosen to enforce guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as law, as it did during the H1N1 outbreak. Instead, OSHA has issued guidelines that are voluntary and leave worker protection up to the discretion of the employer.

It’s an issue of widespread concern, as essential workers — from prison guards to grocery store clerks to bus drivers — fear for their safety as they are expected to continue reporting for work.

» READ MORE: 'They’re not taking our safety seriously’: SEPTA employees call for greater protections

In Illinois, an OSHA official told a worker advocate that although her office had received many complaints for weeks about employers not following CDC guidelines, there was nothing her office could do.

“These recommended measures are not enforceable by OSHA since they are guidance and not OSHA law,” the email from OSHA area director Angie Loftus read. “As an organization, all OSHA can do is contact an employer and send an advisory letter outlining the recommended protective measures.”

OSHA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

JBS, which shut down its Souderton plant for two weeks because managers were exhibiting “flu-like symptoms,” said that it will take safety precautions when it reopens, such as promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts, and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias and break and locker rooms. Cargill also shut down its Hazleton plant and said it would reopen when it’s safe.

Because OSHA is not inspecting or citing any workplaces for coronavirus-related complaints, there is no one checking to make sure these companies are actually following through. And there are no penalties for a company that doesn’t follow through.

There are weak protections, too, for workers who speak up about safety concerns on the job.

It’s illegal to retaliate against a worker who raises workplace health and safety concerns, but Berkowitz said OSHA has a “very poor track record” of handling these complaints, which can take years to settle and are often dismissed. Almost 400 whistleblower complaints have been filed to OSHA since March 1, OSHA confirmed to Bloomberg Law.

» ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and how it affects your health, work and life? Ask our reporters.

This comes at a time when meat processing CEOs are warning of food shortages as they shut down their plants due to positive cases among workers.

The U.S. is “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” said Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan. In South Dakota, Smithfield workers make up more than half the roughly 430 confirmed cases in the state.

» READ MORE: Mom’s Organic staffers protest in Philly, joining grocery workers’ call for coronavirus hazard pay

Local and state governments could step in and issue their own safety requirements, said Berkowitz, and some already have, mirroring how local governments, including Philadelphia, have increasingly passed worker protection laws in lieu of action at the federal level.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an emergency order requiring nursing home workers to wear masks. In Miami, City Manager Art Noriega is also requiring workers and customers in retail establishments to wear masks. Enforcement, however, is the other part of the puzzle and one that cities — Philadelphia included — often struggle with.