This past week marked the 49th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which sets and enforces baseline safety and health standards; guides employer responsibilities and reporting protocols; and provides workplaces with outreach, training and education. Since the passage of the act, working conditions have improved significantly, with approximately 600,000 lives saved. However, even before the era of COVID-19, too many people still faced serious danger, with falls, workplace violence, contact with equipment and exposure to harmful substances being the most common preventable fatalities. Of course, the pandemic is now presenting a whole new set of challenges.
People everywhere are agonizing over the choice between paying rent or protecting their health — particularly those who work in meat packing plants, which have become coronavirus hot spots. And now, President Trump has declared these facilities “critical infrastructure” in an effort to prevent shortages of pork, chicken and other products.
“The announcement provoked swift backlash from unions and labor advocates, who said the administration needed to do more to protect workers who often stand shoulder to shoulder in refrigerated assembly lines,” write Ana Swanson and David Yaffe-Bellany in The New York Times. “In many plants, workers cut and debone meat in tight conditions, share meals in crowded cafeterias and walk the same narrow hallways, making social distancing practically impossible.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union says the Trump administration simply cannot order meatpacking employees to work without taking steps to protect their safety. This includes access to masks and other personal protective gear, performing daily testing, enforcing physical distancing and providing paid sick leave for infected workers.
“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first,” says Marc Perrone, the union’s president, in a media release. “We cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) President Richard Trumka echoes these points on Twitter: “Using executive power to force people back on the job without proper protections is wrong and dangerous. … We should not be focusing on when we can reopen the economy but rather on how we should reopen it to ensure the health and safety of working people.”
And Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, says in a media release, “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry.”
Protect your most valuable resource
A recent ASCM Insights blog post states that the most valuable asset of any business is a healthy and available workforce. The article, “Business Continuity in a Pandemic: Safeguard Your People and Partners,” by Fusion Risk Management Cofounder Bob Sibik, shares numerous strategies for adopting a people-first mindset. See this story and much more helpful content on ASCM’s free COVID-19 Resources Webpage.
People are the ones who fuel supply chains, who innovate and who are absolutely essential to a prosperous future. This is a critical moment to reframe how we think about our workers and empower them to help shape the circumstances of their daily lives.