(Adds comment from U.S. Labor Department, paragraph 9)
CHICAGO, Sept 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Labor Department said on Thursday it cited Smithfield Foods for failing to protect employees from the coronavirus, making it the first major meatpacker to face a fine after outbreaks at slaughterhouses infected thousands of workers.
The citation did little to quiet complaints from labor unions and safety advocates, who say the Trump administration needs to do more to protect workers critical to the nation’s food supply.
The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Smithfield’s plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for “failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm,” according to a statement.
At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted the coronavirus and four employees died this spring, OSHA said. The citation issued to the company said employees worked close to one another and were exposed to the virus.
OSHA proposed fining the world’s biggest pork processor $13,494, the maximum allowed by law.
The citation comes as companies face increasing litigation over worker infections and mounting pressure to protect frontline employees. Critics said the penalty was too small.
“It’s not even a slap on the wrist,” said David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of labor for OSHA under the Obama administration.
“After 1,300 workers have been infected, dozens hospitalized and four killed, a small fine like this sends the message to Smithfield and other meatpacking companies that they have no reason to worry about OSHA.”
The Labor Department said in a statement that OSHA was committed to protecting workers and cited Smithfield in accordance with well-established procedures and legal standards.
Smithfield, owned by China’s WH Group Ltd, thinks the citation is without merit and plans to contest it, spokeswoman Keira Lombardo said. The company has taken steps to protect employees and spent $350 million related to COVID-19 during the second quarter, she said.
Smithfield temporarily closed the plant in April after infections surged among workers. The facility is one of the nation’s largest pork-processing plants, representing about 5% of U.S. pork production.
In July, Smithfield sued OSHA in a bid to quash a subpoena issued as part of a federal probe into the plant. The two sides ultimately came to a resolution, and the case was dismissed.
“The fact is that the Sioux Falls community experienced an early spike in COVID-19 cases, which impacted our plant,” Lombardo said.
Nearly 20 meat plants run by companies like Smithfield, Tyson Foods Inc and JBS USA closed temporarily this spring because of outbreaks.
President Donald Trump in April ordered plants to stay open to protect the U.S. food supply, despite concerns about outbreaks, drawing a backlash from unions that said workers required more protection.
“The failure by the Trump Administration to hold Smithfield accountable makes clear that this White House cares more about industry profits than protecting America’s essential workers,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, America’s largest meatpacking union.
California’s state OSHA this month cited two smaller meatpackers, one frozen-food manufacturer and eight agriculture or farm-labor contracting firms, after the agency determined the companies failed to protect employees from COVID-19.
Cal/OSHA proposed over $200,000 in penalties each to food manufacturer Overhill Farms Inc and its temporary employment agency Jobsource North America Inc.
Overhill disputed Cal/OSHA’s findings and said it would contest them. Jobsource could not be reached for comment.
“It has been scary working through this pandemic and watching co-workers get sick while wondering if I will be next,” Overhill worker Hilda Morales said. (Reporting by Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Tom Brown and Peter Cooney)
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