With the ever-increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the US, many businesses have had to reevaluate their practices and adopt new habits in order to safely stay open. Meatpacking plants are no different, with line-workers working extra hard to maintain their facilities and keep shelves stocked.

Unfortunately, in recent weeks there has been an expansive string of coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the country. Meatpackers and food processors have been seeing a significant amount of cases, leading to the closure of several facilities and even the death of some of their workers.

Texas Tyson Plant Found to be Source of Latest Outbreak

The latest source of one of these outbreaks has been found to be a Tyson poultry processing plant in East Texas. The number of cases in the neighboring area has shot up in the past couple of weeks, leading experts to believe that the Tyson plant in Shelby County is responsible.

Shelby County, despite having a small population of just over 25,000, has one of the highest per-capita rates of confirmed cases in the entire state of Texas. The county has 69 known cases, and public health officials believe that that number is much lower than the amount of actual cases, due to limited testing capabilities in the area.

Health officials also reported that a majority of the cases in the area can be traced back to the Tyson facility. 

The plant in question posted on its Facebook page that it is closed for the week, citing equipment changes; there was no mention of the coronavirus outbreak. Representatives from Tyson say that they are now taking precautionary measures to try to halt the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities, including taking their employees’ temperature, requiring workers to don face-masks or some other form of facial covering, and increasing the allotted distance between workers.

They have also doubled down on cleaning procedures in certain facilities. 

That said, citizens living in these rural areas like Shelby County –workers or otherwise—are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks. Over 20% of the counties in Texas have just one doctor or no doctor at all. In addition, many rural hospitals have closed in recent years; 20 or so of them were in small East Texas towns.

Those working at plants in bigger cities are at risk as well, but for different reasons. Over 150 meat processing plants operate in bigger counties, and a lot of them are in places where the rate of coronavirus is among the nation’s highest. Rates of infection around these urban plants are higher than 75% of the other U.S. counties.

Regardless of city size, these plants are the perfect breeding ground for coronavirus.

Why are So Many Meatpacking Facilities Seeing Coronavirus Outbreaks?

A lot of what makes these facilities hotbeds for infection is cemented in their production methods. Line speed, while always an issue with meatpacking facilities, has only become more of concern throughout this pandemic; many of the restrictions on how quickly employees can work have been temporarily lifted, putting pressure on them to work faster and closer together to meet the new quotas that have been set.

People getting sick has only exacerbated this issue; workers are left to pick up the slack as their coworkers fall ill. 

Even before this pandemic, however, the meatpacking industry was notorious for the myriad of poor working conditions its workers face. Many facilities, for example, have gone under fire for not letting their employees use the restroom, meaning that oftentimes, employees are forced to go long periods of time without washing their hands.

This emphasis on productivity over safety has proven to have negative results; meat and poultry handlers have some of the highest illness rates of all manufacturing workers. 2013 data from the Government Accountability Report shows nearly 160 cases per 10,000 meatpacking employees, versus about 40 cases per 10,000 general manufacturing workers.

Injuries and illnesses are also significantly less likely to be reported by meatpacking workers, for several reasons; line workers fear reporting their injuries and illnesses may cost them their job, while their supervisors fear the potential cost and/or negative press associated with these kinds of incidents. 

In addition, there are a number of issues with the health units in these plants as well. According to data from the U.S. Government Accountability Report done in 2017, many of these places “lack the supervision of medical personnel, have personnel working outside their scope of practice, utilize out-of-date health unit protocols, have inappropriate response protocol to injuries and illness, lack quality assurance, give workers poor access to health units, and facilitate inadequate recordkeeping,” to name a few. These factors leave the safety of these workers –and their families— compromised.

In the face of this pandemic, operators are ultimately left to choose between the health of their workers –and subsequently, the health of the community they serve— and getting meat out to stores in need. For the most part, they have chosen the latter; experts tout that despite the widespread effects of the virus, these slaughterhouses have maintained fairly steady production rates.

Because of this, it’s likely that these meatpacking centers will continue to become outbreak zones. Workers at these plants are generally crammed close together, with no opportunity to social distance. Add in the shortage of available personal protective gear and it’s a recipe for viral plague; as of April 21st, coronavirus had spread to 48 meatpacking plants, infecting over 2,000 workers and killing 17, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found. Despite the spike in illnesses and the deadly effects of infection, however, merely 17 of these facilities have closed due to the outbreak. 

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If you or a loved one has sustained an injury on the job, including becoming sick with COVID-19 as a result of working at a meatpacking plant, contact the workplace injury attorneys at The Callahan Law Firm at 713-224-9000 for a free case consultation.