Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) staff have conducted five on-site inspections of Iowa meatpacking plans during the past six weeks, the Iowa Division of Labor confirmed to Bleeding Heartland on May 28.
According to Mary Montgomery, who works in the office of Iowa Labor Commissioner Rod Roberts, OSHA inspectors examined COVID-19 mitigation measures at the Tyson Fresh Meats pork processing plant in Waterloo on April 20, the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction on April 30, Iowa Premium Beef in Tama on May 21, the JBS pork plant in Marshalltown, also on May 21, and the Tyson plant in Perry on May 26.
Montgomery indicated that a complaint prompted the Waterloo inspection, while “media referrals” led to the others. Asked to define that term, Montgomery said either “news items reported in the media” or information relayed “directly to OSHA by a media source” had prompted the site visits. She did not specify which news reports or journalistic sources influenced OSHA staff.
LAWMAKERS SPURRED OSHA ACTION IN WATERLOO
April 20 was the first business day after State Representatives Ras Smith and Timi Brown-Powers and State Senator Bill Dotzler, all Democrats representing parts of Waterloo, filed an OSHA complaint alleging that Tyson Fresh Meats failed to protect employees “from exposure to recognized COVID-19 hazard.” They and other area Democratic lawmkers signed a letter citing worker accounts of unsafe practices such as insufficient personal protective equipment, inadequate temperature checks before shifts, and lack of social distancing on the operations floor and in locker rooms.
Speaking by phone on May 28, Smith and Brown-Powers told Bleeding Heartland they were not aware OSHA had visited the Waterloo facility. Brown-Powers has been communicating regularly with Commissioner Roberts, who has told her the investigation is ongoing, but he never mentioned an on-site inspection. Both lawmakers also didn’t know about inspections at other meatpacking facilities.
Smith said he hoped to learn the results from the investigation “as soon as possible” and is concerned about how much detail OSHA will make available. With the truth “so hard to come by,” he added, it’s “exhausting” that obtaining information requires “constant pressure” from the press, elected officials, and the public. The Des Moines Register’s Donnelle Eller reported on May 18 that Iowa “communities with meatpacking plants are struggling to get information from companies and public health officials about COVID-19 outbreaks.”
Brown-Powers said prior to filing the OSHA complaint, legislators had been reaching out to Governor Kim Reynolds’ staff and the Iowa Pork Producers “for weeks,” suggesting specific steps to prevent coronavirus spread. “This did not need to get to this point.”
Twenty community leaders in Black Hawk County had urged Tyson to shut the plant down. “The fact that they refused to do that until they’d infected their entire workforce is just disgusting,” Brown-Powers commented.
Tyson suspended operations at Waterloo on April 22 and offered testing to all local employees. The Iowa Department of Public Health said on May 5 that 444 Tyson workers in Waterloo were confirmed to have COVID-19, without indicating that total encompassed only those tested at the plant. Black Hawk County health officials identified 1,031 Tyson employees with the virus, including those tested at area clinics.
COVID-19 has claimed the lives of at least five Tyson employees in Waterloo. Brown-Powers (a health care worker) said during our telephone interview that the official count likely understates the reality, because others who worked at the plant have died without being tested for the virus.
THE “MEDIA REFERRALS” INSPECTIONS
While the Division of Labor did not clarify which news accounts led to on-site inspections, one can make educated guesses.
OSHA visited Tyson’s Columbus Junction plant on April 30, nine days after operations resumed following a two-week shutdown. COVID-19 had sickened hundreds of workers there, at least two of whom died, Tyson confirmed in mid-April. Several employees “said they did not feel comfortable returning to work as the plant reopened,” Tyler Jett reported for the Des Moines Register on April 25.
The inspections of JBS and Iowa Premium Beef on May 21 occurred three days after Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press that OSHA was slow to respond to a complaint against Tyson’s plant in Perry and eventually “closed the case without an inspection.”
Although Governor Kim Reynolds defended what she called a “normal and appropriate process” in response to the Perry complaint, Foley’s reporting generated widespread criticism of OSHA. One week after officials had declared Tyson’s response “satisfactory,” the Iowa Department of Public Health revealed that 730 workers at the Perry plant (approximately 58 percent of the workforce) tested positive for COVID-19. U.S. Representative Cindy Axne, whose district contains Dallas County, asked the governor to investigate OSHA’s handling of the matter, calling the response “severely lacking.”
Another possible factor: during the days before OSHA inspected the Marshalltown facility, multiple news organizations covered the May 15 passing of longtime JBS employee Jose Andrade Garcia. His daughter Maria Andrade told the Register’s Jett that JBS “should have given employees masks and gloves sooner” and was “too slow to install dividers that separate workers.”
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) listed many such concerns about JBS operations in an OSHA complaint filed on April 1. LULAC’s Iowa political director Joe Henry told Bleeding Heartland that he was never told whether OSHA inspected the Marshalltown plant, nor was he aware of any conclusion to the investigation.
The Iowa Division of Labor did send Henry the company’s April 9 response to the complaint, which described various COVID-19 precautions: temperature checks, staggered shifts, face coverings, and an outdoor tent to facilitate social distancing during breaks. According to Montgomery, OSHA “approved” the JBS response on April 13, but she indicated on May 27 that OSHA had not completed its investigation of LULAC’s complaint.
Henry commented that he was “thankful” an inspection finally occurred in Marshalltown, adding that one should have been done in early April.
STATUS OF OTHER OSHA COMPLAINTS UNCLEAR
A separate OSHA complaint LULAC filed in April highlighted allegedly unsafe practices at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Denison. To Henry’s knowledge, officials have not closed that case. He received a copy of Smithfield’s response, sent to OSHA on April 29.
Bleeding Heartland has sought further details about the status of all OSHA complaints against Iowa food processing plants. The Iowa Division of Labor has not yet provided the records requested, nor have I been told whether OSHA plans additional on-site inspections in Denison or elsewhere.
LULAC disputes that mitigation policies implemented by Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield are adequate to protect food processing workers from coronavirus. Henry provided this video, which he said was filmed by a JBS worker in Marshalltown around May 10. The company told OSHA last month it was “evaluating many additional methods of promoting social distancing such as installing dividers between work stations.” Thin plastic sheets are visible in this footage.
LULAC has formed a new council in Iowa comprised of about two dozen employees of meatpacking plants or adult children of such workers, Henry said. Outbreaks at food processors, which employ a diverse workforce including many immigrants, are the primary reason that more than one in four Iowans confirmed to have COVID-19 are Latinos.
The twelve Iowa counties with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections per capita all contain food processing facilities. I pulled this data from the state’s coronavirus website on May 29 and added the meatpacking plants OSHA has inspected in parentheses.
The latest plant to shut down following an outbreak was Tyson’s facility in Storm Lake on May 28. Confirmed cases in Buena Vista County surged in recent days, more than a week after “full-scale testing” of the Tyson workforce began. At this writing, about 3.5 percent of the county’s population has tested positive.
Staff for Iowa Premium Beef and JBS did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries on May 28. A spokesperson for Tyson Foods did not answer specific questions about OSHA inspections or complaints but provided a list of company actions to protect its employees and a link to the company’s media resources related to coronavirus.
U.S. OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control issued interim guidance for meat and poultry processors to address COVID-19 in April. Critics including public health experts, former OSHA officials, and labor advocates have noted the guidance is not enforceable, because the federal government did not make the measures mandatory.
UPDATE: Axne said in a statement on May 29,
“I’m glad that Iowa OSHA is finally inspecting these facilities to ensure worker protections are being followed, but they still need to answer for why they failed to thoroughly investigate a complaint at the Perry plant over a month ago. Just as I did when the original complaint was reported, I am calling for an investigation into why this inspection didn’t happen sooner and what Iowa OSHA’s procedure will be when determining the need for future inspections at Iowa workplaces.”