Meat and poultry processing plants across the United States have been forced to shut down as thousands of plant workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Faced with concerns of a nationwide meat shortage as a result of such closures, on April 28, 2020, President Trump issued an Executive Order requiring beef, pork and poultry processing plants to remain open.
As plants begin to assess how to continue operations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) jointly issued interim guidance for employers titled “Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers” (the “Guidance”) to help reduce the widespread infection of COVID-19. The Guidance provides one of the most comprehensive sets of recommendations by OSHA and the CDC for addressing worker protection related to COVID-19. Significantly, while the Guidance is specifically directed to meat and poultry facilities, it has much broader potential application. All employers with worksites where employees work in relatively close proximity should take note of the Guidance in contemplating best practices to continue or reopen their specific operations.
In issuing the Guidance, OSHA and the CDC explain that workers are not exposed to COVID-19 through the meat products they handle. Rather, their work environments—with processing lines and other busy areas in the plant where workers have close contact—“may contribute substantially” to the potential exposures. The Guidance identifies the following distinct factors that affect workers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 in meat and poultry processing workplaces: (a) close distance between workers in processing lines when clocking in and out and in break rooms; (b) duration of contact, as meat and poultry workers often have prolonged closeness to coworkers in 10-12 hour shifts; (c) type of contact—workers in plants may be exposed to the infectious virus through respiratory droplets in the air as well as contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, workstations or break room tables; and (d) shared common transportation to/from work and frequent contact in community settings where there is ongoing community transmission.
The Guidance lays out extensive measures that meat and poultry processing facilities should consider in creating a “COVID-19 assessment and control plan” applicable to everyone entering the work facility. OSHA recommends identifying a qualified workplace coordinator responsible for performing assessments and planning who is accessible to employees with COVID-19 concerns. Under the Guidance, management of the facility should reach out to state and/or local public health officials and occupational safety and health professionals and establish ongoing communications to make sure they are getting relevant and up-to-date information concerning COVID-19.
The Guidance explains that worker infection prevention recommendations are based on a “hierarchy of controls” that groups actions employers can take based on their effectiveness in reducing or removing hazards, including: (a) implementing engineering and administrative controls of employee work environments to promote social distancing and prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace; (b) educating supervisors and workers, in their native languages, about how they can reduce the spread of COVID-19; (c) enhancing cleaning and disinfecting procedures; (d) screening and monitoring employees; (e) managing workers who show symptoms and developing a return-to-work plan; and (e) providing personal protective equipment (“PPE”). The Guidance notes that, in most cases, the preferred approach is to prioritize engineering controls to eliminate a hazard or process and then to use administrative controls, such as appropriate cleaning, sanitation and disinfection practices and PPE, to reduce exposure or shield workers.
The CDC and OSHA recommend configuring communal work environments so that workers are spaced at least six feet apart, if possible. Accordingly, employers should consider reconfiguring the alignment of workstations, including along processing lines, so that workers are at least six feet apart in all directions. Where possible, workers should be configured so that they are not facing each other. In addition, employers should use physical barriers, such as strip curtains, plexiglass, or other impermeable dividers or partitions to separate workers from each other, if feasible. Employers should also consider consulting with a heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineer to ensure adequate ventilation in work areas and to reconfigure fans to minimize air blowing from one worker directly to another.
Following OSHA’s Sanitation Standard, the Guidance recommends placing touch-free handwashing stations or hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol in multiple locations, as well as adding additional clock in/out stations that are spaced out in order to reduce crowding. Importantly, the Guidance also recommends rearranging chairs and tables or adding partitions to tables in break rooms, and identifying additional break areas to accommodate employee overflow.
The Guidance emphasizes the importance of social distancing and proposes a series of recommendations to support it. These include:
- Encouraging single-file movement through the facility with a six-foot distance between each worker.
- Designating workers to monitor and facilitate distancing on the processing floor.
- Staggering arrival, break, and departure times to avoid congregations of workers in parking areas, locker rooms and break rooms and near time clocks.
- Modifying processing or production lines and shifts and staggering workers across shifts. For example, a plant that normally operates one daytime shift can split workers into two or three shifts over a 24-hour period and/or reserve one shift for cleaning and sanitation. Employers may also want to establish worker cohorts (groupings), which may reduce the spread of workplace transmission by minimizing the number of different individuals who come in close contact with each other weekly.
- Providing visual cues, such as floor markings and signs, to remind workers to maintain social distancing.
- Monitoring and responding to absenteeism in the workplace and establishing a system of reporting to facilitate communication between workers and supervisors if workers are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or have had close contact with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case.
- Reviewing sick leave and incentive policies to ensure that workers are not penalized for taking sick leave.
- Providing access to soap, clean running water, and single-use paper towels for handwashing or providing alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water is not immediately available. Employers may also want to consider implementing other workplace programs to promote personal hygiene, such as building additional short sanitation breaks into worker schedules, and providing no-touch trash receptacles and touch-free hand sanitizers for workers.
In addition, meat and poultry employers are advised to permit employees to wear cloth face coverings as a protective measure. Employers who determine cloth face coverings should be worn in the workplace should instruct employees on the best practices for wearing these coverings pursuant to the most up-to-date CDC Guidance, Use of Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19. Employers should also provide readily available clean cloth face coverings (or disposable facemask options) for workers to use when their coverings become wet, soiled or otherwise visibly contaminated. Importantly, the Guidance emphasizes that cloth face coverings are not PPE and are not appropriate substitutes for PPE, such as respirators or medical facemasks, in workplaces where respirators or facemasks are recommended or required.
The CDC and OSHA advise employers to supplement workers’ normal and required job training with additional training and information about COVID-19, including the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, how it spreads, risks for workplace exposures, how workers can protect themselves, proper handwashing practices and use of hand sanitizer stations, cough and sneeze etiquette, other routine infection control precautions (e.g., putting on or taking off masks or cloth face coverings and social distancing measures), and how to implement any other infection prevention and control measures. Employers are encouraged to make all communications and trainings easily understandable in the language(s) spoken or read by the workers and at the appropriate literacy level.
Employers should also place “simple posters” in all of the languages that are common in the worker population encouraging staying home when sick and reminding employees about cough and sneeze etiquette and proper hand hygiene practices. Employers should place these posters at the entrance to the workplace and in break areas, locker rooms, and other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen.
Notably, the Guidance acknowledges that OSHA understands that some employers may face difficulties complying with OSHA standards due to the ongoing health emergency, including with respect to worker training. Accordingly, OSHA is providing enforcement discretion regarding compliance with various standards, including the completion of training, which will be based on an assessment of whether an employer has made a good faith effort to comply with applicable OSHA standards and, in situations where compliance was not possible given the ongoing pandemic, to ensure that employees were not exposed to hazards from tasks, processes or equipment for which they were not prepared or trained.
Cleaning and Disinfecting
The Guidance recommends establishing increased routine sanitization of work and common areas. For tool-intensive operations, tools must be regularly cleaned and disinfected, at least as often as workers change workstations or move to a new set of tools. Frequently touched surfaces, such as microwaves and refrigerators, should be sanitized “at least once per shift, if possible.” In addition, door handles/bars, hand rails, and physical barriers (if such barriers are being used) should be cleaned frequently. Workers who perform cleaning and disinfection tasks may require additional PPE and employers must ensure that their written hazard communication and employee training programs are up-to-date.
Screening and Monitoring Workers
Workplaces should consider “developing and implementing a comprehensive screening and monitoring strategy aimed at preventing the introduction of COVID-19 in the worksite.” This screening protocol, which the Guidance describes as an “optional strategy,” should apply to all workers and should be developed to the extent possible in consultation with state/local health officials and occupational medicine professionals. In addition, in implementing a screening protocol, employers should consider the following options:
- Screen workers prior to their entry into the facility;
- Ask workers screening questions in appropriate languages to determine whether, in the past 24 hours, they have had a fever, felt feverish or had chills, have been coughing, or have had difficulty breathing;
- Check temperatures at the start of each shift; and
- Exclude anyone from the workplace whose screening results indicate that the worker is suspected of having COVID-19 (e.g., the worker has a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or greater or reported feelings of feverishness).
With respect to temperature screenings, the Guidance provides that employers must ensure that screeners are provided with appropriate PPE and trained to use temperature monitors and that the temperature monitors are accurate under the conditions of use (such as cold temperatures).
Employers must take steps to protect the screeners, including implementing engineering controls, such as physical barriers, to maintain at least six feet of distance between screeners and workers being screened and providing screeners with appropriate PPE. If screeners have to be within six feet of workers, such PPE may include gloves, a gown, a face shield and, at a minimum, a face mask. In addition, N95 filtering facepiece respirators may be appropriate for workers performing screening duties and for workers managing a sick employee in the work environment.
Managing Sick Workers and Developing a Return-to-Work Plan
Workers who appear to have symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g., fever, cough or shortness of breath) should immediately be separated from others at the workplace and sent home. In addition, if a worker is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should conduct contact tracing in order to identify and notify individuals who came into contact with that worker of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace (while maintaining confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act). In addition, the workstation and tools used by a worker who reports being sick should be properly disinfected.
Asymptomatic workers who have been exposed should be reintegrated back into the workplace in accordance with the CDC Critical Infrastructure Guidance and the CDC Interim Guidance, “Discontinuation of Isolation for Persons with COVID-19 Not in Healthcare Settings.” In addition, workers who exhibited signs or symptoms of COVID-19 and self-isolated at home should not return to work until they have met the CDC’s criteria to discontinue home isolation and have consulted with their healthcare providers.
Personal Protective Equipment
As required by OSHA’s PPE standards (29 C.F.R. § 1910, Subpart I), employers must conduct a hazard assessment to determine if hazards are present, or are likely to be present in the workplace, for which workers need PPE. OSHA’s PPE standards require employers to “select and provide appropriate PPE to protect workers from hazards identified in the hazard assessment.” According to the Guidelines, employers should:
- Use videos or in-person visual demonstrations of proper PPE donning and doffing procedures;
- Emphasize that care must be taken when putting on and taking off PPE to ensure that the worker or the item does not become contaminated;
- Provide PPE that is disposable (preferred) or, if reusable, ensure it is properly disinfected and stored in a clean location when not in use; and
- Ensure that PPE worn at the facility is not taken home or shared.
Takeaway for Employers
Employers are subject to the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s “General Duty” clause, which requires employers to provide employees with a safe and healthy workplace that is free of recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm and to comply with the statute’s other occupational safety and health standards. While the joint OSHA and CDC Guidance is specifically directed at meat and poultry plants, many of the recommendations may be instructive for other industries that share similar work practices as they formulate plans for reopening. Analyzing COVID-19 prevention measures through the lens of the hierarchy of controls and adopting the measures identified in the Guidelines will help mitigate legal risks associated with the continuing threat that the spread of COVID-19 poses for most workplaces.
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