Workplace Health and Safety

May 10, 2021 by Aburiyeba Amaso

by Sheila Naughton

From the concern over social distancing in American factories[1] to the proposed liability shield for employers,[2] workplace health and safety is one of the many policy areas brought to the forefront of our minds during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The new Presidential administration has taken several steps towards protecting workers,[3] but the discussion should not end there. Workplace safety regulations and their enforcement are crucial even when the workforce does not face a global pandemic.[4] The history of existing workplace safety protections and the response to COVID-19 pandemic reveal a serious flaw in the public discourse: failure to center the workers themselves.

Perhaps the clearest example of the historical and present-day concerns about workplace safety can be seen in the meat-packing industry. An industry with a history of harsh working conditions and factories which have made an ideal setting for the spread of COVID-19. Author Upton Sinclair wrote about the harsh conditions faced my immigrant laborers in the Chicago meatpacking plants in his 1905 book The Jungle.[5] The novel was intended to expose unsanitary labor conditions and exploitation, particularly as they were experienced by immigrant workers, but much of the public response to the book was consumed by alarm with the unsanitary food packing practices.[6] Sinclair famously reflected on this outcome writing, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.”[7] The meatpacking industry has reemerged as a source of concern during COVID-19 pandemic, and OSHA has documented many concerns about safety in this industry.[8] The contemporary discussion of workplace safety in the COVID-19 era is characterized by similar themes as those that emerged in the twentieth century.

First, in both periods, consumer concerns, such as easy access to sanitary meat, takes center stage. While consumers in 1905 were concerned about food safety, the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread throughout meatpacking plants created concerns about the ability for consumers to access meat products at their local stores.[9]

However, unlike in 1905 where The Jungle raised sanitation fears, the meat industry itself has played a significant role in raising the alarm about meat shortages during the pandemic.[10] Accordingly, the federal government ensured the meat product supply chain’s continuity, acting under the guise of consumer protection while undermining worker’s and public health.  President Trump signed an executive order in April 2020 compelling meat processing plants to stay open, but faced criticism from labor organizers who cited the lack of meaningful action to protect workers in these plants.[11]  Workplace health is tied to public health: the spread of COVID-19 to meatpacking plant workers impacts their communities and further interferes with distribution of food across the country.

A better approach is to protect workers from unsafe conditions while still ensuring adequate food to feed the country. During her testimony, Debbie Berkowitz, a labor advocate and previous government official, criticized claims by executives in the meat and poultry industry for posing a “false choice” between feeding America and protecting workers and communities.[12] In fact, the COVID-19 crisis has spurred discussion of possible changes to the U.S. food system and supply chain to protect workers while preventing disruptions to the food supply for the country.[13]

Additionally, like the main character of The Jungle, who was a Lithuanian immigrant, many of the workers in the present-day meatpacking plants were disproportionately immigrants.[14] Today, most meatpacking plants are found in rural communities and the employees may be vulnerable to exploitation based on a lack of other economic opportunities, immigration status, or membership in a historically marginalized community.[15] Many workers in packing plants are refugees, and many workers do not speak English as a first language.[16] Beyond the meatpacking industry, immigrant workers are disproportionately represented in frontline jobs.[17] Across these instances, the relative lack of bargaining power makes the need for the enforcement of workplace safety measures all the more important.

Altogether, the need for effective regulation of workplace safety endures. The case of the meatpacking industry presents an example that has continued for more than a century. But at the core of this issue is the need to protect workers, especially those who are vulnerable to exploitation, and ensure the health of our communities both in the workplace and beyond.


[1]Chris Marr, States Revive Push for Virus Liability Protections for Employers, Bloomberg L. (Jan. 20, 2021),

[2] Danielle Krost, COVID-19 Shines New Light on Working Conditions in Supply Chains, Harv. Bus.Sch. Working Knowledge (Feb. 23, 2021),

[3] E.g. Exec. Order No. 13,999, 86 Fed. R. 7211 (2021).

[4] Occupational Safety & Health Admin., Dept. of Labor, Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job (2015),

[5] Meredith Francis, How Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ Unintentionally Spurred Food Safety Laws, WTTW Chi. (Jan. 23, 2020),

[6] Id.

[7]I Aimed for the Heart, and … Hit It in the Stomach’, Chi. Tribune (May 21, 2006), (citing Upton Sinclair, What Life Means to Me, The Cosmopolitan: A Monthly Illustrated Magazine (1886-1907), Oct. 1906).

[8] See, e.g. Safety and Health Guide for the Meatpacking Industry, OSHA 3108, Occupational Safety and Health Admin. (1988),; Meatpacking, Occupational Safety & Health Admin. (visited Apr. 11, 2021),

[9] See Samantha Gillison, Trump’s COVID-19 Meatpacking Order Returns Us to ‘The Jungle’ Days Just So You Can Eat Bacon, NBC News (May 4, 2020, 11:45 AM EDT),

[10] Daniel Arkin, Tyson Foods Chairman Warns ‘The Food Supply Chain Is Breaking’, NBC News (Apr. 27, 2020, 10:16 AM),

[11] Jennifer Jacobs & Lydia Mulvany, Trump Orders Meat Plants to Stay Open in Move Unions Slam Bloomberg, Bloomberg News (April 28, 2020, 12:18 PM),

[12] Debbie Berkowitz, Health and Safety Protections for Meatpacking, Poultry, and Agricultural Workers, Testimony before the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, Nat’l Employment L. Project (March 2, 2021),

[13] See e.g. Stephanie Feldstein and Mia MacDonald, COVID-19 Should Push Congress to Fix Our Flawed Food System, The Hill (Apr. 30, 2020, 1:30 PM),;

[14] Berkowitz, supra note 12.

[15]Angela Stuesse & Nathan T. Dollar, Who Are America’s Meat and Poultry Workers?, Econ. Pol. Inst. (Sep. 24, 2020),

[16] Corky Siemaszko, Language Barriers Helped Turn Smithfield Foods Meat Plant into COVID-19 Hotspot, NBC News (Apr. 23, 2020, 2:23 EDT),

[17] Hye Jin Rho, Hayley Brown, & Shawn Fremstad, A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries, Ctr. for Econ. & Pol. Res.  (Apr. 7, 2020),