OSHA fines JBS $15K, says company failed to protect its workers from COVID-19

Coronavirus

The Greeley JBS meat packing plant sits idle on April 16, 2020, in Greeley, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

GREELEY, Colo. (KDVR) — The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited Greeley-based JBS, saying the meat packing company failed to protect its workers from COVID-19.

OSHA proposed $15,615 in penalties, the maximum allowed for a general duty clause violation.

The agency said it cited JBS “for a violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.”

OSHA said the company also failed to provide injury and illness logs in a timely manner following a May 2020 inspection.

JBS has faced criticism for its response to the pandemic. According to state data, six people at the plant and one person at JBS’ corporate offices have died from COVID-19. Additionally, 290 workers have had confirmed positive cases of the virus.

“Employers need to take appropriate actions to protect their workers from the coronavirus,” said OSHA Denver Area Director Amanda Kupper in a statement. “OSHA has meatpacking industry guidance and other resources to assist in worker protection.”

LINK: Full statement from OSHA on JBS

JBS now has 15 days to comply, meet with Kupper or contest the findings before a committee.

“OSHA guidance details proactive measures employers can take to protect workers from the coronavirus, such as social distancing measures and the use of physical barriers, face shields and face coverings when employees are unable to physically distance at least 6 feet from each other. Employers are also required to maintain injury and illness logs,” OSHA said.

On Friday night, JBS sent a statement saying the citation is “entirely without merit.”

A company spokesperson said OSHA’s citation attempts to enforce a standard that did not exist in March, when the company had “no guidance” on how to fight the pandemic.

“When OSHA finally provided guidance in late April, one month after the beginning of the citation time period, our previously implemented preventive measures largely exceeded any of their recommendations. Every proposed abatement in the citation was implemented months ago in Greeley. These abatements would have been informative in February. Today, they don’t even meet our internal standards,” the JBS spokesperson said.

He added that JBS has implemented hundreds of safety measures, including the use of face shields and masks, staggered start times and physical barriers.

“Contrary to the allegations in the citation, the Greeley facility is in full compliance with all recommended guidance and hazard abatements. The facility has been audited and reviewed by multiple health professionals and government experts, including the CDC, local and state health departments, third-party epidemiologists, and the Department of Labor, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, who twice visited the plant during the citation period, and issued favorable reports on April 20th and May 8th,” the company spokesperson said. “The Greeley facility has only had 14 confirmed positives in the past three and half months, representing 0.4% of our Greeley workforce, despite an ongoing community outbreak. The facility has not had a positive case in nearly seven weeks, despite more than 1,730 positives in the county and more than 33,300 positive cases in the state during the same time period.”

On Saturday morning, Kim Cordova, the president of the union representing JBS workers, said OSHA’s penalty was not nearly severe enough.

“A $15,000 ‘penalty’ from OSHA is nothing to a large company like JBS. In fact, it only incentivizes the company to continue endangering its employees. The government has officially failed our members, the more than 3,000 workers at JBS Greeley, who have protected the food supply chain while our communities quarantined during the pandemic. It is immoral and unethical, but in the current Administration, unfortunately not illegal, that OSHA waited seven months to investigate the unsafe working conditions that led to this deadly outbreak. Because of this failure, JBS Greeley is the site of the most meat processing plant worker deaths in the nation due to Covid-19,” Cordova said.

She described JBS’ response as “slow and inadequate.” She said the union will continue to fight for better working conditions.

“Our members share a common goal with JBS, federal, state and local authorities: to ensure that the plant continues to function to protect the food supply chain and to protect jobs, but it must be done in a way that protects the workers so no one else has to get sick or die. That is why we continue to demand verifiable, enforceable safety laws from OSHA, affordable health care in case anyone else gets sick, and hazard pay for workers during this pandemic. In addition, we call for steeper penalties for negligent companies instead of the continued attempts from our government officials to shield them from liability,” Cordova said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the largest meatpacking union in the US, said failures at the federal level put workers’ lives at risk. It also said the penalty OSHA issued was too low.

“Make no mistake, the Trump administration has once again failed to honor what is its sacred responsibility – protect the American people. Our country’s meatpacking workers and the millions of Americans they serve, deserve and expect better from this administration and the leaders sworn to protect us,” the international union said in a statement.

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