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USDA Delayed Involving OSHA in Federal Response to COVID Outbreaks in Meatpacking Plants, Documents Show

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) did not involve the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the federal response to COVID-19 outbreaks among workers in meatpacking facilities. In fact, when OSHA reached out to USDA on April 11, 2020 – weeks after publicly reported massive outbreaks at plants throughout the Midwest – USDA said OSHA’s help was not needed, according to documents obtained by Public Citizen as part of ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation against the U.S. Department of Labor.

“While we knew that the efforts the federal government took to stop the spread of the pandemic in meatpacking plants were woefully inadequate, and put corporate profits over public health, it’s shocking to see that USDA did not even involve OSHA in its pandemic response, until OSHA reached out,  weeks into the pandemic,” said Adam Pulver, the Public Citizen attorney litigating the case. “OSHA’s staff has expertise in worker health and safety issues. But rather than involve the experts, the federal government took direction from industry.”

Documents previously uncovered by Public Citizen through FOIA requests showed that as early as March 16, 2020, the meatpacking industry began lobbying the Trump administration to secure liability protection from the spread of COVID-19, and asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to interfere with efforts of state and local health officials to protect meatpacking workers.

Throughout March and early April 2020, USDA’s political appointees, including Mindy Brashears – who has no training related to human health – continued to opine on workplace health and safety practices, without seeking the input of OSHA.

The newly produced documents show that it wasn’t until April 11, 2020, that OSHA and USDA leadership made contact about the worsening pandemic in meatpacking facilities. One OSHA staffer asked USDA employees whether they were “doing anything on meatpacking worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic,” and Trump OSHA head Loren Sweatt reached out to USDA to offer support – while apologizing for “intruding on [Dr. Brashears’] Saturday.”

The documents also show that OSHA continued to be subservient to USDA as the pandemic exploded in meatpacking plants throughout the spring and summer. “The focus remained on minimizing disruption to profits, not minimizing harm to human lives,” added Pulver.

“Trump’s USDA failed meatpacking workers,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen. “OSHA has one job: to protect workers from injury and illness on the job. The USDA should have reached out to OSHA the moment the coronavirus began to spread in the meatpacking plants to develop and implement protections for workers. Failure to do so cost lives.”

According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, as of January 29, 2021, there have been at least 45,000 reported positive cases of COVID-19 tied to meat and poultry processing facilities in the U.S. and at least 240 reported worker deaths.