Why can’t Smithfield Foods figure out what Charmin and General Mills have? They’re cranking out toilet paper and pizza rolls without turning their workforces into coronavirus hotspots:
At the Charmin factory, shift changes have been stretched out over three hours, to keep workers separated at the plant door. Employees have their temperature taken on the way in. And instead of roaming freely throughout the mile-long plant, workers are compartmentalized, with color-coded badges.
“Every individual got assigned a zone that were allowed to operate in,” [worker Jose] de los Rios says. “It reduces the likelihood of spread of any illness across the plant.”
In the beginning, he says, it was disruptive and awkward trying to talk to coworkers while staying six feet apart. But workers have adjusted.
A General Mills plant in Wellston, Ohio, has adopted similar precautions, issuing face masks to workers and erecting a tent in the parking lot, so employees can maintain “social distance” during their breaks. That’s allowed the plant to keep running at full capacity, making frozen pizza and pizza rolls.
…[Plant manager Carolyn Mendel]’s also compared notes on workplace safety with a rival frozen food maker nearby.
“We talk openly back and forth about things that are working in our site,” Mendel says.
So far, the safety measures appear to be working. There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus at Mendel’s plant or de los Rios’s, although some workers from both facilities have been quarantined as a precaution [Scott Horsley, “This Charmin Factory Keeps Humming Even as Much of America Is Hunkered Down,” NPR, 2020.04.20].
Why is it so hard for meatpackers to adopt the simple and effective precautions that are keeping Charmin and General Foods healthily operating? Perhaps the meatpackers’ commitment to crappy exploitative labor practices:
“In the meat and poultry industry, they have historically not made a priority of worker safety,” said Deborah Berkowitz, a former Occupational Safety and Health Administration official who is now with the National Employment Law Project. “These workers are often very hidden. The plants are often in more rural, remote areas. Therefore people don’t see the sort of sacrifices they’re making” [Horsely, 2020.04.20].
Seth Tupper has more in a brilliant audio report on the meatpackers’ reliance on easily exploited, isolated immigrant labor and how Smithfield’s production model simply doesn’t make room for the health precautions necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Smithfield has designed business processes that can’t take time to keep workers safe.
Charmin and General Mills evidently grasp that keeping their workers healthy is as important as cleaning and oiling the machines and doing other regular maintenance. Your workers are your most valuable equipment. Treat them like gold, and you’ll keep making money.