The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent congressional investigative agency, released a damning report last week detailing how inadequate federal oversight of meat and poultry slaughtering and processing companies endangered workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The report found that despite some efforts by meat and poultry companies to encourage social distancing in their plants, the crowded and strenuous working conditions in the industry made workers as much as 70 times more likely than the general population to contract Covid-19.
The GAO also found that meat and poultry plants throughout the US appeared to have acted as transmission vectors into surrounding populations, accelerating the spread of the virus. Poultry plants that received government waivers to operate at faster speeds, a deregulatory policy which Human Rights Watch has opposed, seem to have particularly contributed to this community spread.
This investigation comes on the heels of another scathing report from the House of Representative’s select subcommittee on the coronavirus, released last year, which outlined how several of the country’s largest meatpacking companies worked with Trump administration officials to keep their workforces on the job as the deadly pandemic raged through the country.
Worker safety issues in the industry extend beyond the pandemic. In 2019, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting the alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among workers at chicken, hog, and cattle slaughtering and processing plants, and the dangers of Trump-era deregulation.
Human Rights Watch concluded that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), charged with overseeing labor conditions, was ill-equipped to investigate rampant abuses and protect workers in the industry, and new industry-specific labor standards were needed. The GAO report came to a similar conclusion, calling on OSHA to consider an industry-specific standard to protect meatpacking workers.
It’s past time for OSHA to heed what the GAO, Human Rights Watch, and worker-led groups and trade associations have been saying for decades: clear and robust worker health and safety standards are needed in this industry.