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OSHA Fines Smithfield 0.023% for Social Costs of Sioux Falls Coronavirus Outbreak

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. $13,494, the maximum allowed by law, for failing to protect employees at its Sioux Falls slaughterhouse from exposure to the coronavirus.

That’s $10.43 for each of Smithfield Sioux Falls’s 1,294 infected employees, or $3,373.50 for each of the four who died from coronavirus. Given the statistical estimate that each coronavirus case (not even considering death) imposes costs to public health and the economy of $46,000, OSHA is asking Smithfield to pay 0.023% of the $59.5 million cost of letting coronavirus spread insufficiently checked for three weeks among its Sioux Falls employees. Smithfield surely bore some of that statistical cost already in its lost productivity among its workers… but we’re not including in our tally the folks outside the slaughterhouse who caught coronavirus from poorly protected Smithfield workers.

South Dakota Voices for Peace, which speaks up for immigrants who work and live in Sioux Falls and all around our colorblind state (where “colorblind” means blind to the hazards people of color undergo as they do us white folks’ dirty work here in South Dakota), says this small OSHA response justifies the early protests against Smithfield’s callous inaction:

“Food production workers are the reason we have food on our table. The impact of COVID-19 was known. There was no element of surprise,” said Taneeza Islam, Executive Director of SD Voices for Peace and member of the SD Dream Coalition. “For Smithfield to not have mitigation plans in place to curtail the risk of exposure to the nearly 4,000 employees inside of those four walls is clearly a violation of OSHA regulations. There is now some vindication for these employees and families who have lost loved ones because of OSHA’s enforcement of these regulations here in Sioux Falls, SD” [South Dakota Voices for Peace, press release, 2020.09.11]

The United Food and Commercial Workers International that represents those sickened workers and 1.3 million others agrees says OSHA is letting Smithfield off easy:

“How much is the health, safety, and life of an essential worker worth? Based on the actions of the Trump Administration, clearly not much. This so-called ‘fine’ is a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face of the thousands of American meatpacking workers who have been putting their lives on the line to help feed America since the beginning of this pandemic.

“OSHA has been asleep at the switch throughout this pandemic and this is just the latest example of the agency failing to do their job and take responsibility for worker safety. If we truly care about protecting workers and our nation’s food supply during this pandemic, the federal government must take action, beginning with an enforceable national safety standard, increased access to PPE and COVID-19 testing, and rigorous proactive inspections.

“Smithfield is a multi-billion-dollar corporation that failed to protect its workers, with multiple deaths and more than a thousand infections on their watch. This response by OSHA confirms that the company will not face any real consequences. 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. Our country’s meatpacking workers, and the millions of American they serve, deserve and expect better from those sworn to protect us” [UFCW President Marc Perrone, press release, 2020.09.11].

Smithfield Foods agrees with the UFCW that OSHA are lazi doofi, but the Chinese-owned company plans to fight even that tiny tax on its externalities, a fine Smithfield VP Keria Lombardo says is “wholly without merit“:

“The fact is that the Sioux Falls community experienced an early spike in COVID-19 cases, which impacted our plant. We responded immediately, consulting with CDC, South Dakota Department of Health, USDA and many others. We also simultaneously and repeatedly urged OSHA to commit the time and resources to visit our operations in March and April. They did not do so.

“More than anything, the outcome of OSHA’s comprehensive, full-court-press investigation of our Sioux Falls facility validates the aggressive and comprehensive manner in which we have protected the health and safety of our employees amid the pandemic. Again, the citation is wholly without merit, and we plan to contest it.”

Smithfield has 15 business days after receiving the citation and penalty to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission [Jodi Schwan, “Smithfield Plans to Contest OSHA Citation, Calling It ‘Wholly Without Merit’,” Sioux Falls Business, 2020.09.11].

The North American Meat Institute quickly produces this graph showing that meatpackers have not just flattened but lowered the curve of infection in their abattoirs while the rest of Trumpistan as seen cases rise since spring:

Graph of weekly new coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants and general population, North American Meat Institute, retrieved 2020.09.11.
Graph of weekly new coronavirus cases and trendlines in meatpacking plants and general population, North American Meat Institute, retrieved 2020.09.11.

…but the fact that meatpackers may have figured out how to prevent the spread of coronavirus more quickly than the rest of society doesn’t change their responsibility for slow response at the start, when they apparently thought they could just grind ahead with business as usual and a little extra hand-sanitizer. It took lots of bad press, plant shutdowns, and loss of profits to make them realize they had to impose and stick with stricter pandemic controls to keep the bacon and bucks flowing.

Thus, Big Meat’s rebuttal doesn’t exonerate Smithfield; it only reinforces the argument against the Trump/Noem wishez-faire approach to coronavirus and the argument for strict, ongoing interventions to control the pandemic.

9 Comments

  1. Debbo 2020-09-11

    No surprise that the GOP’s OSHA is so anti-life.

  2. mike from iowa 2020-09-12

    We should all be willing to lay our lives on the line to increase big bidness profits. That is the wingnut way.

  3. John 2020-09-12

    Weak governors and weaker governance allow the trump virus to get out of hand to the point where the Dakotas’ have the highest positive rates in the nation.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/09/10/spiking-coronavirus-cases-falling-oil-prices-deliver-dual-blow-north-dakota/

    Fittingly the heart of Iowa’s trump country (Sioux, Lyon, and adjacent counties) has the highest positive rates in Iowa for the trump virus. These are folks most likely to ignore social distancing, masks, and ignore science.
    https://www.keloland.com/keloland-com-original/sioux-lyon-counties-post-highest-positive-rates-in-iowa/

  4. sx123 2020-09-12

    Wow, really put the screws to ’em…

  5. o 2020-09-12

    Debbo, you beat me to it. Again and again, at the moment “life” will cost business a measure of its profits, profit wins out. The GOP wanted to ensure legal protections were given carte blanche to business to keep them free of responsibility for any actions they took in conducting business that may spread Corona.

  6. jerry 2020-09-12

    6 more trump/NOem virus deaths to report today. More hospitalizations, staying positive in South Dakota can kill you.

  7. jerry 2020-09-12

    Pigs can carry and transmit the trump/NOem virus, so there is that. Just when you thought a pork chop would be great for supper, now you know, it could eat your lunch.

    “A Canadian government study has concluded that pigs can be infected with the coronavirus, challenging previous findings on the pathogen’s reach.
    In a non-peer reviewed paper published on Friday, a joint research team from Canada and the United States said Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease Covid-19, was found in swine tissue about two weeks after infection.
    “[This study] provides evidence [that] live Sars-CoV-2 virus can persist in swine for at least 13 days,” the researchers led by Brad Pickering from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said in the paper posted in bioRxiv.org.”

    Maybe we should stop the mass producing of pork in CAFO’s as that would be great for the environment and super for our health.

  8. leslie 2020-09-12

    My suspicion is that Kristi played a heavy role in a Smithfield coverup. CDC gots its wings clipped then, days after (~April 22) the Greeley packing plant was heavily sanctioned by CDC. OSHA and FDA have likely gone thru similar purges to make Trump look good. Fauci himself can barely avoid Trump’s slime, that CDC’s Redfield has suffered. “YOU’RE FIRED” belongs on a game box, not as major national administrative policy. Duh. Kristi is playing a game that hopefully will be exposed. Mike Rounds is likely advising her with his near guilt in the $600,000,000 EB5 fraud on/by the state and investors. GearUp (Daugaard?) still needs an expose’ too. It is difficult to remember which chief executive for SD was up to the chin in which corruption.

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