During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sharp increase in reports of illness among meat and poultry workers. These jobs require working in crowded plants, putting workers at greater risk of disease.
In response to these concerns, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration increased plant inspections. But OSHA’s safety standards didn’t include COVID-19 related hazards—like requiring workers to be in close proximity. As a result, OSHA had few enforcement options.
OSHA is developing an infectious disease standard for health care workers, but not for meat and poultry workers. The Government Accountability Office recommended that OSHA assess actions needed to protect them.
Companies reported taking steps to address COVID-19 in response to federal guidance. Most of the 15 companies responding to GAO’s survey said they encouraged distancing in communal areas, installed barriers, and required masks. However, studies, federal inspections, and worker interviews suggest that meat and poultry workers continued to face high risk of infection in the first year of the pandemic. For example, in 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that COVID-19 risk to workers at one large meat plant was more than 70 times higher than to the state’s general population.
OSHA increased meat and poultry plant inspections in the first year of the pandemic, but faced enforcement challenges. Officials told GAO their ability to protect workers was limited because existing standards did not target COVID-related hazards, such as jobs requiring workers to stand in close proximity. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 permits OSHA to develop safety and health standards for specific industries. OSHA is developing an infectious disease standard for healthcare workers, but not for workers in meat and poultry processing. Without assessing the actions needed to better protect meat and poultry workers—such as assessing the need for an industry standard—OSHA may be missing an opportunity to protect workers.
OSHA and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) officials said they met regularly during the pandemic, but did not provide documentation on whether they addressed worker safety. The agencies reported little field-level collaboration among staff with direct knowledge of plant conditions. In August 2022, the agencies updated their 1994 memorandum of understanding, which states that FSIS should report hazards to OSHA, including infectious diseases. The agencies did not follow some leading collaboration practices, such as defining outcomes and including key participants. By following these practices, OSHA and FSIS could better collaborate on meat and poultry worker safety.
In 2016 and 2017, GAO reported that meat and poultry workers faced multiple occupational hazards. OSHA is responsible for ensuring worker safety and health, FSIS is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products, and employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces.
The CARES Act includes a provision to monitor and report on the federal pandemic response. GAO also was asked to review federal efforts to ensure meat and poultry worker safety and health during the pandemic.