OSHA Offers Toothless Response to COVID-19 Workplace Deaths


How much are the lives of essential workers who are keeping food on the tables of their fellow Americans worth? Not much, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

A recent ruling by the federal agency fined two meatpacking plants in South Dakota and Colorado a measly $29,000 after at least 12 workers there died and some 1,500 were infected with the coronavirus. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) called the penalties “a new low,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise.

OSHA could have issued a fine 10 times the size it did, but choose not to because, evidently, the agency felt these were not willful violations by Smithfield and JBS Foods. One only wonders how many would need to die for it to qualify as such.

For months, the Teamsters and its labor allies have pushed OSHA and Congress to implement a temporary emergency safety standard to protect workers. The Teamsters also joined in solidarity with the UFCW in July in backing legislation offered by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that called for the imposition of line speed limits at meatpacking plants to ensure worker safety and social distancing.

Senate Republicans, however, have sat on their hands instead of moving fixes. Workers need to be protected with comprehensive and enforceable rules, not empty promises.

There are real ideas out there to fix food processing facilities such as these to make them safer for these frontline workers. On a panel last month sponsored by the Teamsters, Keeve Nachman, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, said researchers there have come up with a plan to help curb the coronavirus at worksites.

Called Shield, Test, Trace and Treat, Nachman stated the plan would do a better job of protecting a vulnerable workforce that already faced numerous challenges on the job by increasing testing, tracking down those exposed to the sick, and providing paid sick leave to those affected, among other things.

But for now, while there are known solutions, we only have silence from elected officials. Essential workers have given their all keeping this country up and running, putting their lives and those of their families at risk. Don’t this nation’s leaders owe them more than just the shoulder shrug they are currently receiving?