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OSHA investigating conditions at Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota

Workers reported a lack of safety equipment in the weeks before state officials acknowledged an outbreak at the plant. Smithfield has admitted to struggling to find enough equipment amid a national shortage, but has strongly defended its intent to keep workers safe.

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The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on April 16. (Jeremy Fugleberg/Forum News Service)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Federal workplace safety officials are investigating conditions at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, they confirmed late Friday, May 1.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation of the processing plant, closed since mid-April after a coronavirus outbreak among its workers, on April 20, according to a Department of Labor spokesperson.

"Currently, this inspection is still open, and no further information will be available until the investigation is complete," the spokesperson said via email.

It's doubtful Virginia-based Smithfield would face any penalties from the OSHA inspection. The agency said April 28 it didn't intend to penalize meat packers if they make good-faith efforts to adhere to new safety guidelines issued by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health officials have linked two fatalities and 1,098 COVID-19 cases to the outbreak at the Smithfield plant, mostly workers and several hundred close-contacts, although the number of known cases hasn't grown this past week, indicating officials have tested all individuals who have shown symptoms of the illness.

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Virginia-based Smithfield closed the plant April 15, weeks after it informed state officials a worker had tested positive for the virus on March 24. But the plant has been expected to re-open soon. On Friday, the Associated Press reported the company intends to re-open the facility on Monday , citing a union representative. The plant employs 3,700 and handles about 5% of the nation's pork supply.

Workers reported a lack of safety equipment in the weeks before state officials acknowledged an outbreak at the plant. Smithfield has admitted to struggling to find enough equipment amid a national shortage, but has strongly defended its intent to keep workers safe.

On Friday the company issued a statement striking back at media reports of workers who feel the company hasn't done enough to keep its workers safe and fearful going back to work could put them at risk of catching the virus.

“Media and other reports pitting the company against its employees are flat out wrong. There is no such division," Smithfield said. "The company and its team members all want the same thing, namely, to protect employee health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply."

A team from the CDC toured the pork processing plant after it was closed and issued a set of recommendations released to the public on April 23. The CDC recommended Smithfield step up social distancing policy and provision of protective gear and screens and do a better job translating COVID-19 information for its diverse employee population.

SOUTH DAKOTA COVID-19 CASES

The South Dakota Department of Health reported 63 more positive cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, for a statewide total of 2,588.

The state has recorded 21 deaths as of Saturday, May 2.

The number of those who have recovered from COVID-19 infection 1,759, up by 73 from Friday.

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As of Saturday, the state received 119 test results, which makes the number of negative test results overall in the state 14,579.

The bulk of the state's cases, 2,242, are in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties, home to Sioux Falls.

President Donald Trump has cited the importance of food processing plants to the nation's food supply in his decision to invoke the Defense Production Act, ordering the plants to re-open, or remain open. State and local officials have scrambled to follow suit. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem has said the state is helping Smithfield re-open by getting it a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment for its workers, and other measures.

Still, OSHA has opened investigations at numerous food processing plants across the country, many of which have been epicenters for local outbreaks of the coronavirus. The CDC reported Friday t he pandemic had struck 115 food processing plants across the country, sickening nearly 5,000 workers and killing 20.

Seven other South Dakota businesses were investigated by OSHA for complaints alleging COVID-19 related safety and health violations. The cases have since been closed and limited information is available on the findings and if any penalty or enforcement followed the discovery of valid complaints.

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Related Topics: HEALTHNEWSMDALL-ACCESS
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