JBS, one of the world’s largest meatpackers, hit with five-figure fine for Covid-19 violations

It’s OSHA’s second Covid-related fine of a meatpacker, and labor advocates say it’s not nearly enough.

After six months of inaction, America’s workplace safety agency has now issued its second citation to a meatpacker for not protecting its workers from Covid-19.

On Friday, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued the fifth citation of the week, and second to a meatpacker, charging JBS, the world’s largest meat company, for the spread of coronavirus in its Greeley, Colorado, plant. The agency cited the company for a violation of the general duty clause, which requires employers to keep job sites free from recognized hazards that cause death or serious harm. JBS, which reported new infections at its Greeley plant through the summer, also failed to provide injury and illness logs after a May OSHA inspection.

But labor advocates said the citations, which add up to a fine of $15,615, amount to a slap on the wrist to the billion-dollar multinational company, and do not reflect the sacrifices made by essential workers during the pandemic. Six workers have died, and another 290 have been infected with the virus at the plant. Last week, OSHA also issued a citation to Smithfield Foods—another of the “Big Four” meatpackers—for a general duty clause violation at its Sioux Falls, North Dakota, plant, and fined the company $13,494. 

“How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump administration, clearly not much.”

After that citation was announced, The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents thousands of workers at both plants, said the fines were “insulting,” and renewed calls for OSHA to do more to stop the spread of coronavirus in meat plants, which have been hotspots during the pandemic.

“How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump administration, clearly not much,” Marc Perrone, the union president, said in a statement. “This White House cares more about industry profits than protecting America’s essential workers.”

The union, and prominent Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have urged OSHA to enact an emergency temporary standard to cite employers for violating specific Covid-19 safety measures, such as physical distancing or wearing face masks. Inspectors found Smithfield employees were working in close proximity to each other during the pandemic, and the company had not implemented measures to mitigate exposure, according to a citation reviewed by The Counter. The agency suggested that the company enforce physical distancing throughout the plant, or put up barriers and use faceshields and masks. 

Prior to last week’s citations, OSHA had cited only one employer, despite receiving over 8,000 coronavirus-related safety complaints since April.

Employers can face larger fines for willful or repeated violations. David Michaels, a former OSHA head, tweeted that the agency went “very, very easy” on Smithfield, and could have issued numerous citations. “This easily could have been a multi-million dollar fine, given the number of workers sickened,” he added. “While still a tiny amount for a huge global corporation, it would have sent a powerful message to other firms and therefore made a contribution toward deterrence.”

Michaels and others have slammed OSHA during the pandemic, asserting that the agency has abdicated its responsibility to protect workers during the most serious public health crisis in generations. Prior to last week’s citations, the agency had cited only one employer, despite receiving over 8,000 coronavirus-related safety complaints since April. The agency has issued only voluntary guidance. 

In July, the agency entered into an agreement with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) to “provide information, guidance and access to training resources for protecting workers” to meat plants. The group, which is one of the top lobbyists for the meat industry, reportedly drafted President Trump’s executive order to keep meat factories open. 

“When OSHA finally provided guidance in late April, one month after the beginning of the citation time period, our previously implemented preventive measures largely exceeded any of their recommendations.”

In a statement, NAMI claimed the citations were not valid, because they were based on investigations that began before guidance was issued in late April, and because the companies had implemented safety measures to protect their workforces. Representatives from JBS and Smithfield concurred in emails to The Counter.

“The OSHA citation is entirely without merit,” said JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett. “When OSHA finally provided guidance in late April, one month after the beginning of the citation time period, our previously implemented preventive measures largely exceeded any of their recommendations. Every proposed abatement in the citation was implemented months ago in Greeley.”

Bruett added that the plant is in “full compliance with all recommended guidance,” and has not had a positive case in nearly seven weeks. Nevertheless, the Colorado health department still lists the Greeley facility as having an active outbreak, according to The Denver Post. Along with the outbreak at the Smithfield plant, it remains among the largest in the country, according to The New York Times.

Sam Bloch is a staff writer for The Counter.