Iowa takes its first action against a meat-packing plant for COVID-19 violations, issues $957 fine

Workers process pork in a meat processing plant, May 2016. — United States Government Accountability Office

Meat-processing plants have repeatedly been the epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa, and this month the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its first fine to a plant for virus-related violations. Iowa Premium Beef Plant in Tama, where an outbreak in April infected more than 300 workers, was fined $967, Ryan J. Foley of the Associated Press reported on Thursday.

The fine was for “failing to keep a required log of workplace-related injuries and illnesses, and for failing to provide the document within four hours after inspectors requested it,” according to documents obtained by Foley. Both violations are categorized as “other-than-serious.”

In addition to the Tama plant, Iowa OSHA has inspected another four meat-processing plants — the Tyson plants in Waterloo, Columbus Junction and Perry, as well as the JBS plant in Marshalltown. Outbreaks at those plants have led to over 1,600 cases of COVID-19 and at least nine deaths from the virus.

None of those plants are facing fines or other enforcement actions from Iowa OSHA, Foley reported.

Iowa OSHA inspectors inspected the Iowa Premium Beef Plant in Tama, six weeks after an outbreak at the plant was first publicly reported. The plant suspended production for two weeks starting on April 6. After it reopened, the company provided face masks to the workers. Prior to the shutdown, workers had brought their own face masks, although plant management didn’t approve of workers using masks until four days before the plant’s temporary closure.

After it reopened, the plant also installed plexiglass shields in work areas, and staggered shifts to reduce contact among workers.

The fine was imposed on Sept. 2. Iowa OSHA originally proposed a fine of $1,914, but after negotiations with the company, Russell Perry, the agency administrator, reduced it to $957.

The records obtained by Foley showed that the outbreak at the Tama plant was worse than the Iowa Department of Public Health said it was. During Gov. Kim Reynolds’ May 5 news conference, IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said testing showed the number of workers infected at the plant was 258. The actual number was 338.

On Friday, IDPH reported another 1,086 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19 during the 24-hour period ending at 10 a.m. That number included nine residents of Johnson County and 38 residents of Linn County.

The ongoing surge centered in northwestern Iowa continued on Friday, with another county hitting the 15 percent mark in its 14-day average positivity rate for COVID-19 tests. Fifteen counties were at 15 percent or higher in their 14-day average positivity rate on Friday morning.

At 10 a.m. on Friday, IDPH was reporting a total of 1,303 Iowans have died from COVID-19, an increase of four deaths since the same time on Thursday. Among the newly reported deaths was a resident of Linn County. So far, 110 residents of Linn County and 27 residents of Johnson County have been killed by the virus.

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