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U.S. cites Smithfield Foods for failing to protect workers from coronavirus

CHICAGO, Sept 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Labor Department said on Thursday it cited Smithfield Foods for failing to protect employees from the coronavirus, making it the first major U.S. meatpacker to face a fine after outbreaks at slaughterhouses infected thousands of workers this spring and caused meat shortages.

The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for “failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm,” according to a statement.

At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted coronavirus, and four employees died from the virus this spring, the statement said.

OSHA proposed fining Smithfield $13,494, the maximum allowed by law. The citation comes as companies are facing increasing litigation over worker infections and mounting pressure to protect employees.

Smithfield, owned by China’s WH Group Ltd, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company can contest OSHA’s findings.

“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” said Sheila Stanley, OSHA Sioux Falls Area director.

President Donald Trump in April ordered meat-processing plants to stay open to protect the nation’s food supply, despite concerns about coronavirus outbreaks, drawing a backlash from unions that said at-risk workers required more protection.

Nearly 20 plants run by companies like Smithfield, Tyson Foods Inc and JBS USA closed temporarily because of outbreaks.

California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration this month cited and proposed fines against one frozen food manufacturer, two smaller meat packers, and eight agriculture or farm labor contracting firms, after the agency determined the companies failed to protect employees from exposure to COVID-19.

Cal/OSHA has issued citations to frozen food manufacturer Overhill Farms Inc and its temporary employment agency Jobsource North America Inc. The agency proposed over $200,000 in penalties to each employer for failing to protect hundreds of employees from COVID-19 at two plants in Vernon.

The companies could not be reached immediately for comment.

“The employers did not take any steps to install barriers or implement procedures to have employees work at least six feet away from each other and they did not investigate any of their employees’ COVID-19 infections, including more than 20 illnesses and, in the case of Overhill Farms, one death,” the agency said in a statement.

Reporting by Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Leslie Adler