Officials moved slowly on workplace complaint as Tyson's Perry plant Covid-19 outbreak grew

The rising costs of brisket and other meat cuts have forced barbecue restaurants to make changes to their menus.

Posted: May 27, 2020 10:41 AM
Updated: May 27, 2020 10:41 AM

Officials in Iowa's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) waited over a week before contacting Tyson Fresh Meats in Perry, Iowa and declined to inspect the facility after receiving a workplace complaint, according to documents obtained by CNN through an open records request.

A review of the complaint filed in April alleges workers inside a Tyson pork processing plant in Perry were "elbow to elbow" and at risk of exposure to Covid-19. The complaint, first reported by the Associated Press, was filed on April 11. Iowa OSHA did not reach out to Tyson Fresh Meats about the complaint until April 20, the same day Tyson paused operations for a deep cleaning of the facility, , according to documents reviewed by CNN.

Tyson would reopen the plant on April 22, only to suspend operations again on April 24, for testing purposes. The Perry Tyson plant resumed operations on May 4, a day before the state health department announced more than 700 employees had tested positive for Covid-19.

At the time the complaint was filed, the number of Covid-19 positive employees was unknown because neither Dallas County Public Health officials nor Tyson Foods had made that information available. However, there were reports in local news outlets of employees testing positive, and local officials and activists had spent days attempting to pressure Tyson to close the plant for cleaning and testing before it did.

The complaint also alleges social distancing guidelines were not being followed on the production floor or in the cafeteria. The reason listed on the complaint for deciding against an inspection of the facility is "Covid-19."

Responses to the complaint

According to documents, state OSHA officials sent a letter by email to the source to acknowledge receipt of the complaint on April 13. On April 20, officials attempted to contact Tyson by phone and email to discuss the complaint. In a letter to Tyson, Iowa OSHA also says they "are not conducting an inspection at this time." The letter goes on to say, "Since allegations of violations have been made, you should investigate the alleged condition(s) and make any necessary corrections or modifications."

The letter also says: "If we do not receive a response from you within 5 working days indicating that appropriate action has been taken or that no hazards exist and why, an inspection may be conducted."

In emails obtained by CNN between a manager for the Tyson Perry plant and Iowa OSHA, Tyson provided a timeline for actions taken inside the plant to implement CDC and OSHA guidelines at the Perry facility-including beginning to install partitions on the production floor on April 13 and mandating face masks on April 15.

Not mentioned in Tyson's response are plans to suspend operations on April 20 or to mass test employees on April 25. The complaint was closed on April 28-four days after the plant announced it would suspend operations a second time to test workers.

Lawmakers ask for answers

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said at a press conference last Tuesday that state OSHA regulators acted appropriately. "It appears that they followed normal and their appropriate process," Gov. Reynolds said.

The Tyson plant in Perry paused operations to "test team members and conduct a deep clean of the entire facility", according to Tyson. When the plant resumed operations on May 4, a spokesperson told CNN via email that all team members returning to work at the Perry facility had been tested and protective equipment had been installed during the closure.

The next day, Iowa's Director of Public Health identified the Perry plant as one of five workplace locations in the state that experienced a Covid-19 outbreak, meaning more than 10% of the employee population had tested positive for coronavirus. At that time, the Tyson plant in Perry had 730 positive cases, 58% of the plant's employees.

Now, lawmakers are asking for answers. Congresswoman Cindy Axne is calling for an investigation into the Iowa OSHA's handling of the complaint.

"Iowans are going to depend on Iowa OSHA...therefore, the public must know why a direct complaint of unsafe conditions failed to produce any confirmation of an outbreak," Rep. Axne said in a statement.

The letter asks for public disclosure on the timeline OSHA operated under and the reason an on-site inspection as not performed.

In April, the Iowa Department of Public Health reached out to the Centers for Disease Control to help deal with more meat processing plants in the state reporting Covid-19 positive employees and managing the outbreaks.

According to documents obtained by government watchdog group Accountable.US and provided to CNN, the Iowa Department of Health's medical director, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, emailed the CDC on April 15 asking for on-site assistance. The same day, the two agencies hold a conference call to discuss assistance for Covid-19 outbreaks at meat processing facilities. IDPH declines to make a formal request, asking for more time to gather "information from our partners."

On April 20, the CDC emails Dr. Pedati outlining how the agency can help on the ground offering help with contact tracing, foreign language skills, and coordinating employee screenings. No further emails between the two were provided.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 768624

Reported Deaths: 13993
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1055891807
Lake569801031
Allen43032699
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Hamilton37335426
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Tippecanoe23503230
Vanderburgh23240405
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Warrick8084157
Floyd8043182
Grant7378181
Wayne7239201
Boone7211105
Morgan6924143
Marshall6345117
Dubois6283118
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Noble600890
Henry5958111
Jackson517277
Shelby511598
Lawrence4928127
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Martin92515
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Union73610
Ohio58411
Unassigned0429

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 1125420

Reported Deaths: 20490
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1305631493
Cuyahoga1173952263
Hamilton825481261
Montgomery536581062
Summit489381014
Lucas43799834
Butler40064614
Stark33876939
Lorain26072510
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Mahoning22738613
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Clermont20425261
Delaware19169138
Licking16879227
Trumbull16829492
Fairfield16825207
Medina15880276
Greene15565254
Clark14366308
Portage13450218
Wood13358201
Allen12064245
Richland11748213
Miami11047228
Wayne9275228
Columbiana9216236
Muskingum9144137
Pickaway8755123
Tuscarawas8724255
Marion8716140
Erie8146166
Ashtabula7280179
Hancock7050135
Ross7031165
Geauga6975153
Scioto6726108
Belmont6224179
Lawrence5964104
Union591649
Jefferson5729162
Huron5644122
Sandusky5498130
Darke5448131
Seneca5380128
Washington5373111
Athens527260
Auglaize507787
Mercer491785
Shelby484397
Knox4621113
Madison448066
Ashland446198
Defiance439499
Fulton436875
Putnam4358104
Crawford4120111
Brown410462
Preble3956107
Logan392279
Clinton391466
Ottawa376481
Highland366668
Williams357378
Champaign349860
Guernsey331554
Jackson321954
Perry299050
Morrow294943
Fayette289350
Hardin279665
Henry277467
Coshocton273061
Holmes2726102
Van Wert252365
Gallia251150
Adams250958
Pike244837
Wyandot235557
Hocking222963
Carroll201449
Paulding180142
Meigs151540
Monroe137945
Noble137939
Harrison115438
Morgan111724
Vinton87517
Unassigned04
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