CDC issues guidance for meat and poultry workers amid coronavirus outbreaks, food supply concerns

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new guidance for meatpacking plants and their workers, recommending proactive, precautionary measures to reduce the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 and staffing shortages have forced some of the nation’s largest meat processing plants, including those owned by JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, to temporarily pause operations at select facilities in recent weeks.

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With potentially serious repercussions at stake for the nation’s food supply and livestock value chain, the CDC is now emphasizing the importance of social distancing for workers and employers involved in the processing of beef, pork and poultry in the fight against the viral disease.

“Workers involved in meat and poultry processing are not exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through the meat products they handle,” the CDC explained. “However, their work environments — processing lines and other areas in busy plants where they have close contact with coworkers and supervisors — may contribute substantially to their potential exposures.”

A shopper surveys the overflowing selection of packaged meat in a grocery early Monday, April 27, 2020, in southeast Denver. With closures in meat processing plants across the country because of the spread of the new coronavirus among workers, food analysts are forecasting shortages of beef, pork and poultry on the shelves of the country's supermarkets in the days ahead. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A shopper surveys the overflowing selection of packaged meat in a grocery early Monday, April 27, 2020, in southeast Denver. With closures in meat processing plants across the country because of the spread of the new coronavirus among workers, food analysts are forecasting shortages of beef, pork and poultry on the shelves of the country's supermarkets in the days ahead. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The new guidance includes:

  • Physically distancing workers. Re-configure work stations to separate workers by at least 6 feet, if possible. Create physical barriers to partition — like plexiglass or strip curtains — to create a greater distance.
  • Reevaluate ventilation. Facilities should consider reviewing their work-area ventilation systems with a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning engineer to confirm that workers’ potential exposures are minimized. Personal cooling fans should be removed, and fans (like pedestal or hard-mounted versions) should be adjusted so they do not blow from one worker directly towards another worker.

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  • Encourage hand hygiene. Beyond the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s orders, which require employers to provide handwashing facilities for employees, handwashing stations and/or hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol (and ideally, touch-free) should be placed in multiple locations to encourage good hand hygiene.
  • Reduce duration of contact. Encourage greater physical distance between workers in the plant by adding multiple stations to clock in and clock out. Touch-free methods and staggered shift times are also viable options.
  • Increase worker separation. From the break room to the plant floor, staffers are often in close proximity to their coworkers for long periods during lengthy shifts. Modifying processing or production lines, as well as staggered shifts, can better separate workers for their own safety throughout the day, from the break room to locker/changing rooms to when they enter and exit the facility.

Additional recommendations from the CDC include guidance for the general public, such as wearing a face mask that covers the mouth and nose, keeping a distance of at least six feet from others, frequently washing hands, properly sanitizing high-touch areas and staying home when sick.

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In a statement last Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW,) America’s largest meatpacking and food processing union, said that 10 meatpacking workers and three food processing workers have died of the COVID-19.

According to their estimates, the union further claims that 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have also been “directly impacted” by the virus. This number includes those who have tested positive, been hospitalized, missed work while self-quarantining, appear symptomatic, or are awaiting test results.