Clyburn targets OSHA meatpacking companies with investigation of

U. S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, announced Monday that the committee will investigate the spread of COVID-19 in the nation’s meatpacking plants. In a first move, the committee issued investigatory letters to the U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and food companies JBS USA, Smithfields Foods, and Tyson Foods. Each letter requested a bevy of documents, including those that could shed light on how each entity responded to COVID-19 outbreaks and complaints within plants. Since the start of the pandemic, USA TODAY in partnership with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has investigated the spread of the novel coronavirus in meatpacking plants. To date, more than 45,000 workers have fallen ill, with at least 240 deaths, stemming from 482 outbreaks, tracking from the Midwest Center shows. But the true toll could be much larger, as companies failed to report and OSHA failed to investigate some deaths under the Trump administration. In a letter to OSHA, Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, criticized the agency for failing “to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws” at plants, resulting in infections and death.“It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans,” Clyburn wrote. Clyburn’s letter also “urged” OSHA to take specific actions, including issuing “clear guidance” to employers, enacting a temporary emergency standard for workplace safety, and enhancing enforcement efforts. The letter was addressed to Jim Frederick, deputy assistant secretary of OSHA, a former assistant director of the United Steelworkers Union who was appointed by President Joe Biden on Jan. 21. Last Friday, Frederick led the release of new workplace safety guidelines for coronavirus that agency officials said marked the first step in a change of direction from the administration. OSHA is next set to consider by March 15 the necessity of emergency standards, which would legally require employers to take precautions against COVID-19. Whether or not the agency increases enforcement through fines and penalties to the industry remains to be seen. According to Clyburn’s letter, OSHA has issued just eight coronavirus-related citations totaling $80,000 in penalties to the industry so far. OSHA officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment Monday morning. Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff and senior policy adviser at OSHA and now director of the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program, called the subcommittee’s investigation “critically important.”“The meat and poultry industry became a vector for the spread of COVID 19 because it did not implement basic safety precautions.

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