OMAHA (DTN) -- Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. may be fined about $13,500 for an alleged safety violation at its meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where nearly 1,300 employees contracted COVID-19 and four workers died from the virus this spring.
The plant was temporarily closed in April for cleaning at the onset of the outbreak, reopening after putting measures in place to protect employees.
"On or about and at times prior to March 23, 2020, the employer did not develop or implement timely and effective measures to mitigate exposures to the hazard of SARS-CoV-2," the citation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, said.
"Between March 22, 2020, and June 16, 2020, approximately 1,294 employees had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Of those employees, approximately 43 were hospitalized and four employees died of complications related to the virus."
OSHA issued COVID-19 guidelines for the packing industry on April 26, 2020.
Based on a coronavirus-related inspection, OSHA cited the company for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a "workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm."
Smithfield will be required to respond to the OSHA citation within 15 days.
To put the potential penalty into perspective, farmers and other landowners who violate the Clean Water Act, for example, can face potential fines of tens of thousands of dollars per day.
Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield, told DTN the company would contest the penalty.
"After an investigation that spanned many months and encompassed the review of over 20,000 pages of documents and 60 interviews, OSHA has issued only a singular citation under its catchall 'general duty clause' for conditions that existed on and prior to March 23, 2020," she said in a statement.
"This is notable because OSHA did not issue guidelines for the meatpacking industry until April 26, 2020. Despite this fact, we figured it out on our own. We took extraordinary measures on our own initiative to keep our employees as healthy and safe as possible so that we could fulfill our obligation to the American people to maintain the food supply."
Lombardo said the company incurred about $350 million in additional expenses related to COVID-19 in just the second quarter.
"Ironically, OSHA then used what we had done as a model for its April 26 guidance," she said.
"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 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), 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."
Lombardo said the outcome of OSHA's investigation of the Sioux Falls plant "validates the aggressive and comprehensive manner in which we have protected the health and safety of our employees amid the pandemic."
When contacted by DTN, the North American Meat Institute said in a statement the actions taken by meat and poultry producers this year have led to a reduction in cases among plant workers.
"When the pandemic hit, companies quickly and diligently took steps to protect workers, including implementing CDC/OSHA guidelines, spending millions of dollars to protect and support employees," NAMI said.
"And now, months later, the industry remains vigilant against the spread of COVID-19. Positive cases of COVID-19 associated with meat and poultry companies are trending down compared with cases nationwide."
According to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, the number of cases reported among meatpacking plant employees dropped dramatically since the first week in May.
From May 3 to May 9, 4,500 plant workers tested positive for COVID-19 nationally. From Aug. 16 to Aug. 27, the industry reported just 250 positive cases.
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN
(c) Copyright 2020 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.