In 2021, OSHA released COVID safety guidelines for meat plants and other food processing facilities — but stopped short of making them mandatory. The agency recommends using certain safety measures, such as face coverings and paid time off for employees to receive vaccinations. However, it does not require employers to follow these rules or produce written hazard analyses or safety plans.

The decision not to make these recommendations mandatory has drawn fire from unions like United Food and Commercial Workers, which believes the lack of a mandate will likely harm workers.

This is why many believe OSHA mandates for COVID-19 safety protocols will be necessary. Here’s what employers can do until requirements are in place.

How COVID-19 is continuing to impact food processing

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the food processing industry. While COVID-19 vaccines are becoming more widely available in the United States, most Americans are still not fully vaccinated, and the pandemic remains a serious threat for food plant workers.

One of the most recent outbreaks occurred in June at a Colorado potato processing plant, where eight staff members contracted the disease.

Barriers to vaccination mean COVID will likely be a threat well into the year. Some unvaccinated people may also never get their shot, or the one they receive may be less effective due to immunodeficiency disorders that dull the immune response. Instead of depending fully on vaccination, they’ll be dependent on employers with awareness of COVID-19 safe work protocols to protect them against potential outbreaks.

Many vaccination sites and clinics offer appointments only during standard business hours, meaning that employees may need to take time off work to get vaccinated. If employers are unwilling to allow that, workers concerned about losing potential earnings may put off getting their shots.


What businesses can do to protect workers

In the same way water quality in food and beverage manufacturing significantly impacts product safety, employee health can negatively affect what a plant processes.

Employers are free to follow OSHA guidelines without a mandate, and some businesses likely will implement safety measures without being required to. Several companies have taken steps to significantly reduce food waste despite the lack of a mandate or rule.

While many will likely choose not to implement the recommended safety measures, individual employers can protect their employees by following OSHA guidelines or similar workplace health recommendations. The reporting, planning and review of safety measure implementation can also help businesses make these rules more effective, even though OSHA doesn’t yet recommend developing a COVID-19 safety plan.

Offering paid time off for vaccinations can also make a major difference. If employees are concerned about losing pay or hours, creating a program that pays workers to get vaccinated can help alleviate those fears.

The more workers are vaccinated, the harder it will be for COVID-19 to spread in their workplace.


COVID-19 will continue to threaten the health of food plant workers

The rate of new COVID-19 cases, while significantly lower than it was one year ago, remains high. As vaccination continues and employers begin to return to more normal business operations, organizations like OSHA should take steps to protect workers from the lingering threat of the pandemic.

Recommending safety measures are a good start, but without a mandate, many workers will still be at risk.