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Meat and Poultry Worker Safety: OSHA Should Determine How to Address Persistent Hazards Exacerbated by COVID-19

GAO-23-105104 Published: Jun 20, 2023. Publicly Released: Jun 20, 2023.
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Fast Facts

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. We recommended that OSHA assess actions needed to protect them.

Workers on a chicken processing assembly line with sanitary shields between them.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

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.

Plastic Sheeting between Poultry Workers Standing in Close Proximity

Fig HL-5 v01_105104-01

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.

Why GAO Did This Study

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.

This report examines (1) meat and poultry companies' response to the pandemic and how the pandemic affected these workers; (2) OSHA's enforcement actions and associated challenges; and (3) OSHA and FSIS collaboration on worker safety. GAO surveyed companies, analyzed OSHA inspection data from February 2018 through June 2022—the most recent available at the time; reviewed federal laws and regulations; and spoke to workers from nine states with large meat and poultry processing operations. GAO also compared OSHA and FSIS actions to leading practices for interagency collaboration, and interviewed federal officials.

Recommendations

GAO recommends that OSHA assess the actions needed—such as an industry standard—to protect meat and poultry workers; and that OSHA and FSIS follow leading collaboration practices. OSHA stated it would respond to the recommendations after the report is issued. FSIS agreed with the recommendation to collaborate.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Labor The Secretary of the Department of Labor should ensure that OSHA assesses and reports on which actions—such as an industry-specific standard—are needed to protect meat and poultry workers from the numerous hazards they face, including the risk of infectious disease. OSHA could decide to request assistance from CDC's NIOSH in this process. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In August 2023, DOL stated that OSHA believes there are better ways to protect meat and poultry workers than to develop a new standard, given the agency's limited resources. They noted that most of OSHA's general industry standards cover the meat and poultry industry, and that OSHA continues to implement a number of emphasis programs that cover hazards in meat and poultry facilities. Further, DOL stated that OSHA strategically targets its resources towards industries where employees are most at risk of serious injury, illness, or death. Finally, they noted that the agency uses a broad spectrum of data to shape its response, and that OSHA will monitor and review its efforts, and take action as appropriate. We reiterate that although meat and poultry workers are covered by OSHA's general industry standards, the agency continues to face challenges ensuring the safety of workers in this industry, which OSHA recognizes has many serious safety and health hazards. To best ensure the health and safety of these vulnerable workers, we continue to recommend that OSHA assess and review what additional actions are needed to protect meat and poultry workers from the numerous hazards they face, including the risk of infectious disease. OSHA could also request assistance from CDC's NIOSH as they undertake this process.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should ensure that the Food Safety and Inspection Service meets regularly with DOL's OSHA through their interagency workgroup to resolve longstanding collaboration challenges and incorporate leading collaboration practices. In incorporating these practices, the agencies should clearly define short and long-term outcomes, track and monitor progress towards these outcomes, and publicly report collaborative outcomes. (Recommendation 2)
Open
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) agreed with this recommendation and noted its commitment to partnering with OSHA and to doing a better job collaborating to resolve challenges. Specifically, FSIS stated that it is committed to clearly defining short- and long-term outcomes, tracking and monitoring progress, and publicly reporting collaborative outcomes related to meat and poultry worker safety. We laud these plans and, as FSIS and OSHA develop additional outcomes through their workgroup, we encourage them to clearly link these outcomes to the leading collaboration practices and to the challenges we identified in this report. In August 2023, DOL stated that OSHA plans to work with FSIS to employ the leading collaborative practices that are already in use to identify and track specific short- and long-term outcomes. We look forward to seeing the outcomes of FSIS's collaboration with OSHA as they implement this recommendation.
Department of Labor The Secretary of the Department of Labor should ensure that OSHA meets regularly with USDA's FSIS through their interagency workgroup to resolve longstanding collaboration challenges and incorporate leading collaboration practices. In incorporating these practices, the agencies should clearly define short- and long-term outcomes, track and monitor progress towards these outcomes, and publicly report collaborative outcomes. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In August 2023, DOL stated that OSHA plans to work with FSIS to employ the leading collaborative practices that are already in use to identify and track specific short- and long-term outcomes. We look forward to seeing the outcomes of OSHA's collaboration with FSIS as they implement this recommendation.

Full Report

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Topics

Food safetyFood standardsIndustrial facilitiesMeat industryMeat and poultry workersOccupational safety and healthpandemicsPoultryPoultry industryPublic health emergenciesSafetySlaughter inspectionsWorker safetyWorkers