Meat and poultry plants should implement social distancing and “consider the appropriate role for testing and workplace contact tracing” in helping to control COVID-19 at their facilities, according to new guidance issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Screening meat and poultry processing workers for COVID-19 symptoms, such as by using temperature checks, “is an optional strategy that employers may use,” the guidance says. “If implemented for all workers, policies and procedures for screening workers should be developed in consultation with state and local health officials and occupational medicine professionals.”

The plants should also consider staggering workers across shifts, the agencies said.

“For example, a plant that normally operates on one daytime shift may be able to split workers into two or three shifts throughout a 24-hour period,” the interim guidance says. “In meat and poultry processing plants, one shift may need to be reserved for cleaning and sanitization.”

The guidance comes as beef, pork and poultry plants around the country are shutting down temporarily or slowing their production lines to cope with COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities.

For example, Tyson Foods shut down its pork plant in Logansport, Ind., Saturday so 2,200 employees can be tested. Smithfield also has shut down its pork plant in Monmouth, Ill., and cases have been reported at meat plants and food processing facilities in North Carolina, including at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, one of the world’s largest pork production plants. Jennie-O shut down two turkey plants in Minnesota.

Many of the measures recommended in the guidance are similar to those recently taken by major meat companies, which have been criticized for not acting quickly enough to address the spread of coronavirus. Tyson Foods, for example, took out a full-page ad in Sunday’s Washington Post in which Board Chairman John Tyson said it has been taking workers’ temperatures and requiring face coverings; stepping up disinfection and cleaning efforts; and installing barriers between work stations to address social distancing.

Paula Schelling, who leads the local of the American Federation of Government Employees that represents Food Safety and Inspection Service meat inspectors, said she was “having a hard time understanding how this (guidance) is beneficial.” She said she needed to get more details on how it actually would be implemented at the plant level.

The North American Meat Institute said it is “reviewing the guidelines and will work with our members on their ongoing efforts to protect employees while keeping their plants producing food Americans need.”

Workers and federal inspectors have said it is difficult if not impossible to “social distance” in the plants, but the new guidance says companies can take a number of measures to keep workers at least six feet apart.

“Current information about the asymptomatic spread of SARS-CoV-2 supports the need for social distancing and other protective measures within a meat and poultry processing work environment,” it says. “Changes in production practices may be necessary in order to maintain appropriate distances among workers.”

The guidance urges, “Modify the alignment of workstations, including along processing lines, if feasible, so that workers are at least six feet apart in all directions (e.g., side-to-side and when facing one another), when possible.”

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Also, “Use physical barriers, such as strip curtains, plexiglass or similar materials, or other impermeable dividers or partitions, to separate meat and poultry processing workers from each other, if feasible.”

The guidance also says “employers should do the following to promote social distancing:"

  • Encourage single-file movement with a six-foot distance between each worker through the facility, where possible.
  • Designate workers to monitor and facilitate distancing on processing floor lines.
  • Stagger break times or provide temporary break areas and restrooms to avoid groups of workers during breaks. Workers should maintain at least six feet of distance from others at all times, including on breaks.
  • Stagger workers’ arrival and departure times to avoid congregations of workers in parking areas, locker rooms, and near time clocks.
  • Provide visual cues (e.g., floor markings, signs) as a reminder to workers to maintain social distancing.
  • Encourage workers to avoid carpooling to and from work, if possible;
    • If carpooling or using company shuttle vehicles is a necessity for workers, the following control practices should be used:
      • Limit the number of people per vehicle as much as possible. This may mean using more vehicles.
      • Encourage employees to maintain social distancing as much as possible.
      • Encourage employees to use hand hygiene before entering the vehicle and when arriving at the destination.
      • Encourage employees in a shared van or car space to wear cloth masks.
      • Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces after each carpool or shuttle trip (e.g., door handles, handrails, seat belt buckles).
      • Encourage employees to follow coughing and sneezing etiquette when in the vehicle.

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