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Smithfield fined $13,494 for failing to protect Sioux Falls workers from COVID-19

 The Smithfield Plant in Sioux Falls
The Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls.

Smithfield Foods will be fined $13,494 for failing to protect workers from COVID-19 at its Sioux Falls pork plant.

The company will also work with third-party experts to develop an infectious disease preparedness plan at all of its processing facilities.

The fine — the maximum allowed per safety violation — and preparedness plan are part of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The agreement comes after an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection in March 2020 that found Smithfield failed to protect workers from COVID-19.

OSHA cited Smithfield with one violation of the general duty clause "for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm."

OSHA changed the violation to failing to provide protective equipment as part of the settlement. The settlement also says that Smithfield does not admit to the violation.

Four Smithfield workers died of COVID-19 and 1,294 were infected by June 16, 2020.

“What happened at this facility was tragic and we must ensure that all steps in the agreement are followed to prevent a mass outbreak from happening again," OSHA Regional Administrator Jennifer Rous said in a news release.

But a Smithfield leader said the allegations of breaking OSHA rules are "baseless."

"Settling with OSHA and avoiding litigation allows Smithfield to continue the good relations it has with the agency, as we have the shared goal of workplace safety," said Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 304A, the union that represents nearly 3,000 Smithfield workers, is not happy with the settlement.

"This deal is nothing more than a slap on the wrist for Smithfield and a deeply troubling betrayal of the men and women who have already sacrificed so much in this pandemic," union President B.J. Motley said in a news release.

The union says the agreement has weak financial penalties, fails to recognize worker rights that were ignored and allows the company to continue to police itself.

Settlement details

The settlement says Smithfield will work with third-party experts to review its current COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan while creating a preparedness plan that can be used for any future infectious disease outbreak.

The plans will have a special focus on how Smithfield can prevent exposure in areas where workers are typically in close contact.

The news release says the company and experts will also:

  • Review Smithfield’s existing programs and procedures.
  • Evaluate plant administrative and engineering controls.
  • Identify personal protective equipment and respiratory protection needs.
  • Address medical management through the facility’s onsite clinic, and identify issues associated with continuity of operations.
  • Train and implement program requirements in languages and at literacy levels that the workforce understands.

The settlement agreement says Smithfield must work with the union in reviewing its COVID-19 plan and developing its infectious disease plan.
The settlement "sets the company up to continue our leadership in infectious disease safety," Monroe said.

He said Smithfield quickly implemented COVID-19 safety regulations at the beginning days of the pandemic, when masks were being discouraged outside of healthcare settings.

When public health officials released workplace guidance, Monroe said, Smithfield was already following most suggestions.

Monroe also said the company collaborated with OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control to identify mitigation strategies.

But the former CEO of Smithfield pushed back against CDC's COVID-19 safety recommendations last year, according to a report from a U.S. House subcommittee.

The CEO said 14 of those recommendations — including ones related to social distancing, asking workers about fever history, and flexible shift and break times — were "problematic."

The CDC later revised a memo to the South Dakota Department of Health to make the recommendations optional, not required.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.
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