Court defers to OSHA on COVID-19 safety issues

By Allison Czerniak

Jul. 2, 2020

Smithfield Foods is a meat-processing company, which was affected by several federal and state orders related to COVID-19. On April 4, the state of Missouri identified livestock-slaughter facilities as “critical infrastructure.”

On April 22, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent a “rapid response investigation” letter to Smithfield regarding its COVID-19 work practices and infection at Smithfield’s Milan, Missouri, plant, and giving Smithfield seven days to respond. OSHA requested that Smithfield identify what policies and actions had been implemented in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rural Community Workers Alliance, which represents the workers at Smithfield’s Missouri plant, brought a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri accusing Smithfield of failing to adequately protect employees at the Missouri plant from contracting COVID-19. The RCWA raised state-law claims for public nuisance and breach of duty to provide a safe workplace. 

The court dismissed the lawsuit. The court dismissed the case under the primary jurisdiction doctrine, which allows a district court to refer a matter to the appropriate administrative agency for ruling.

Citing in part the Trump administration’s April 28 Executive Order requiring meat processing plants to continue operating during the pandemic, the court concluded that “OSHA (in coordination with the USDA per the Executive Order) is better positioned to” determine whether Smithfield’s plant was complying with federal guidance. Rural Community Workers Alliance, et al. v. Smithfield Foods, Inc. et al., No. 5:20-CV-06063-DGK 2020 WL 2145350 (W.D. Mo. May 5, 2020)

IMPACT: While labor unions and advocacy groups will continue to raise concerns regarding worker safety in light of COVID-19, federal courts may be inclined to defer to OSHA on these matters. Ultimately, by reducing the risk of workers’ exposure to the virus, employers can also reduce their own exposure to liability.

Allison Czerniak is an associate with Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Chicago.

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