Poultry Processing Safety During COVID-19


Recently, there has been much focus on the effects of COVID-19 on the poultry processing industry. The media has chosen to highlight the significant outbreaks of the virus in a few plants across the country in such a way that could cause the general public to think that every meat or poultry plant in the United States is about to crumble under the massive infestation and that the grocery shelves are about to be empty of meat and poultry products. While this virus is very serious and way too many people have been hurt as a result of it, there are things that we can and are doing to keep employees safe while providing the country and world with a safe, quality protein to feed their families.

Associates in meat and poultry plants work in remarkably close quarters which can create a prime environment for the spread of COVID-19 or any other communicable disease. I have been in numerous food manufacturing plants across the country and I always tell people that ask that I have never been in any food manufacturing environment that is as clean and sterile as a poultry plant. Before COVID-19, poultry plants already went above and beyond to achieve the highest sanitation requirements and it is an industry that is ahead of the game in terms of food safety and eliminating any contamination that may reach the end consumer. So, I am confident that the end consumer is not at risk for infection from the product that they purchase from grocery shelves if they follow the proper steps in preparation. However, I am concerned that our associates that choose to work to support themselves and their families while it would often be easier to stay home and collect support from the government will be affected in a negative way.

  • According to the CDC, Associates involved in meat and poultry processing are not exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through the meat products they handle. However, their work environments—processing lines and other areas in busy plants where they have close contact with coworkers and supervisors—may contribute substantially to their potential exposures. The risk of occupational transmission of SARS-CoV-2 depends on several factors. Some of these factors are described in the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of and Health and Human Services’ booklet Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. Distinctive factors that affect associates’ risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in meat and poultry processing workplaces include:
  • Distance between associates – meat and poultry processing associates often work close to one another on processing lines. Associates may also be near one another at other times, such as when clocking in or out, during breaks, or in locker/changing rooms.
  • Duration of contact – meat and poultry processing associates often have prolonged closeness to coworkers (e.g., for 10-12 hours per shift). Continued contact with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.
  • Type of contact – meat and poultry processing associates may be exposed to the infectious virus through respiratory droplets in the air – for example, when associates in the plant who have the virus cough or sneeze. It is also possible that exposure could occur from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, workstations, or break room tables. Shared spaces such as break rooms, locker rooms, and entrances/exits to the facility may contribute to their risk.
  • Other distinctive factors that may increase risk among these associates include:
    • A common practice at some workplaces of sharing transportation such as ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles, car-pools, and public transportation
    • Frequent contact with fellow associates in community settings in areas where there is ongoing community transmission.

Citing his authority under the Defense Production Act, President Trump declared in an executive order that “it is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (‘meat and poultry’) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” So, as a member of this critical infrastructure industry that is responsible for a large number of front line associates, I have been burdened with the task of balancing employee safety with the critical needs of the country and I am confident that we in the industry are making the safety of our associates the upmost priority while striving to still provide such a critically important product to the American consumer.

At LoneStar Labor Management, we are following the recommendations of the CDC and industry experts to attempt to create a safe environment for our associates while balancing the need for continued production. We are configuring communal work environments so that associates are spaced at least six feet apart, if possible. 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. Changes in production practices may be necessary in order to maintain appropriate distances among associates.

Modifying the alignment of workstations, including along processing lines, if feasible, so that associates are at least six feet apart in all directions (e.g., side-to-side and when facing one another), when possible. Ideally, modifying the alignment of workstations so that associates do not face one another. Using markings and signs to remind associates to maintain their location at their station away from each other and practice social distancing on breaks.

Using physical barriers, such as strip curtains, plexiglass or similar materials, or other impermeable dividers or partitions, to separate meat and poultry processing associates from each other, if feasible.

  • Placing handwashing stations or hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol in multiple locations to encourage hand hygiene. If possible, hand sanitizer stations are touch-free.
  • Adding additional clock in/out stations, if possible, that are spaced apart, to reduce crowding in these areas. Consider alternatives such as touch-free methods or staggering times for associates to clock in/out.
  • Removing or rearranging chairs and tables, or adding partitions to tables, in break rooms and other areas associates may frequent to increase worker separation. Identifying alternative areas to accommodate overflow volume such as training and conference rooms, or using outside tents for break and lunch areas.
  • We are also attempting to do the following to promote social distancing:
  • Encouraging single-file movement with a six-foot distance between each associate through the facility, where possible.
  • Designating associates to monitor and facilitate distancing on processing floor lines.
  • Staggering break times or providing temporary break areas and restrooms to avoid groups of associates during breaks. Associates should maintain at least six feet of distance from others at all times, including on breaks.
  • Staggering associates’ arrival and departure times to avoid congregations of associates in parking areas, locker rooms, and near time clocks.
  • Providing visual cues (e.g., floor markings, signs) as a reminder to associates to maintain social distancing.
  • Encouraging associates to avoid carpooling to and from work, if possible
    • If carpooling or using company shuttle vehicles is a necessity for associates, the following control practices are being used:
      • Limiting the number of people per vehicle as much as possible.
      • Encouraging associates to maintain social distancing as much as possible.
      • Encouraging associates to use hand hygiene before entering the vehicle and when arriving at the destination.
      • Encouraging associates in a shared van or car space to wear cloth masks.
      • Cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces after each carpool or shuttle trip (e.g., door handles, handrails, seatbelt buckles).
      • Encouraging associates to follow coughing and sneezing etiquette when in the vehicle.
      • In addition, we are monitoring and responding to absenteeism at the workplace. We are implementing plans to continue essential business functions in cases of higher than usual absenteeism.
      • LoneStar Labor Management wants all customers, associates, their families, and the general public to know that we take COVID-19 seriously and are doing everything in our power to protect our associates while sustaining such critical operations that our country is in significant need of. It is our goal to deliver a quality product while making the lives of our customers and associates better each day.