July 6, 2023

Report Asks OSHA To Consider Infectious Disease Standard for Meat and Poultry Workers

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on June 20 urging OSHA to assess what actions are needed to more effectively protect workers in meat and poultry plants from infectious diseases. These actions could include developing a standard to protect meat and poultry processing workers from airborne infectious disease similar to the one in progress for healthcare workers, GAO stated.

Meat and poultry workers are vulnerable to contracting infectious diseases because they often must work close to one another on production lines. In 2020, OSHA found that the risk of COVID-19 infection for workers at one large meat plant in South Dakota was more than 70 times greater than for the state’s general population. Most of the 15 companies that responded to GAO’s survey reported that they took steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among their employees, such as by installing plastic barriers between workstations. However, 13 workers from five companies who were interviewed by GAO felt that these measures were not completely effective. The workers believed that their employers waited too long to take safety measures or did not correctly implement or enforce them.

OSHA increased plant inspections during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but officials told GAO that they had limited ability to protect workers, since existing OSHA standards did not address hazards specifically related to COVID-19. OSHA staff met regularly throughout the pandemic with Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) officials, but the agencies reported little collaboration among personnel who had direct knowledge of conditions inside plants. According to GAO’s report, OSHA and FSIS did not follow certain best practices for collaboration—for example, including key participants—when it came to meat and poultry worker safety.

To address the enforcement challenges faced by OSHA, GAO recommends that the agency assess and report on actions to protect meat and poultry workers from infectious diseases and other hazards, including an industry-specific infectious disease standard, if necessary. The Departments of Agriculture and Labor should also ensure that FSIS and OSHA officials meet regularly and clearly define, track, and report on short- and long-term outcomes, GAO states.

“Given the continued threat of infectious disease and other longstanding and persistent hazards—such as those associated with musculoskeletal disorders—at meat and poultry plants, OSHA could benefit from assessing available actions for better protecting these essential workers,” the report concludes.

A provision in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act calls for monitoring and reporting on the federal pandemic response. GAO was previously asked to review federal efforts to protect the health and safety of meat and poultry workers during the pandemic.

More information as well as links to download PDFs of the full report and related materials can be found on GAO’s website.