Smithfield Foods and Covid-19 Controls

Businesses still struggle every day to maintain some semblance of successful operations during the Covid-19 crisis, and that struggle is about to get more challenging as countries around the world begin lifting lockdowns and re-opening economic activity as soon as this week. 

So what does that mean for corporate compliance programs? What are the policy and procedure questions a large enterprise is going to encounter? 

To answer those questions, we might start with a close examination of Smithfield Foods. The company had to close a giant pork processing plant in South Dakota on April 12 after an outbreak of Covid-19 struck hundreds of employees there. The plant accounts for roughly 5 percent of the U.S. pork market — large enough that the closure will have “severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions” for the food supply chain, in the company’s own words. Food for thought as we all stare at empty supermarket shelves.

The Centers for Disease Control inspected the South Dakota plant 10 days ago, and last week published a report that recommended more than 100 remediation steps Smithfield should implement so it can reopen the plant as soon as possible.

Those recommendations are worth reading even if your business is far removed from food production. They touch on everything dear to a compliance officer’s heart: workplace policies, internal reporting, operational procedures, training, and corporate culture. 

Even better, the recommendations also tie those big compliance concepts to remediation steps specifically related to disease control. As we’ve said before on this blog, integrating disease control into daily business operations is something companies will need to master until we all have Covid-19 vaccine marks on our biceps. 

So what can we glean from the CDC’s Smithfield report? Let’s take a look.

Elements of Success

Expertise. First, Smithfield and the South Dakota Department had a team of CDC specialists visit the plant for an inspection. Such a visit is known as an “Epi Aid” (for “epidemiologic assistance”), and local public health departments can ask for one when the need is there. 

Now, one should not allow a Covid-19 crisis to erupt at the office just so you and the local health inspector can call in the CDC for emergency assistance. But Smithfield’s Epi Aid does demonstrate that disease control is hard even for companies supposedly accustomed to this threat — and most businesses aren’t accustomed to this threat, so you’ll need to find expert guidance somewhere. 

The CDC did issue interim Covid-19 guidance for businesses in March. Local public health departments have published similar guidance (San Francisco’s Infectious Disease Emergency Response Plan has been recommended to me), and you may find help from local universities, healthcare consultants, or other online resources. 

Physical design as a control. The CDC recommended steps such as placing plexiglass barriers between workstations, putting more space between tables in the breakroom, marking the floor with tape or paint to designate six-foot distances, and installing touch-free sinks and hand-wash stations in bathrooms. 

In other words, you need to consider the physical design of your facility as a disease management control. Not every recommendation for Smithfield might work at your own company, but it’s an important point to grasp. If we want to incorporate social distancing and disease control into daily operations, that means keeping employees physically apart. So how could your organization redesign its facility to do that? 

One good example from the CDC: look for naturally occurring bottlenecks of employees, such as time-clock stations or lunchrooms. Those bottlenecks are what you want to remediate. In Smithfield’s case, it installed more time-clocks, using a model where employees don’t need to “punch in” physically. What could you do? 

Policy as a control. You’ll also need to consider policy changes that achieve those same objectives: keeping employees apart and alleviating bottlenecks. For example, the CDC recommended more flexibility around starting times for shifts and times for employee breaks — all to avoid the bottlenecks that would otherwise naturally occur as everyone shows up for work at 7:55 a.m. or hits the cafeteria for a night-shift meal. 

You’ll also need to make sure that your sick leave policies don’t discourage good behavior or encourage bad behavior. 

For example, Smithfield had been offering a $500 “responsibility bonus” for employees who didn’t miss any work time in April — which struck me as a terrible idea, because it encourages people to come to work as much as possible. Much wiser is a sick leave policy that encourages people to stay home rather than risk bringing Covid-19 into the office. That means generous paid sick leave, “sick banks” for employees to donate time to each other, and so forth.

Training. None of these measures will work well without proper training for employees — and figuring out “proper” may be harder than it seems. For example, Smithfield did post many fliers around the plant about Covid-19 safety procedures, but many of them were densely packed with words and not at eye level; the CDC recommended more pictographic materials, on larger paper, posted at a height more people were likely to see. You may need to get that specific in the design of your training materials.

Some of Smithfield’s other missteps will make compliance officers wince. Yes, the company implemented temperature checks at employee entrances, and employees with fever were sent home with materials to educate them about Covid-19 — but those materials were only in English, when the plant’s 3,700 employees spoke dozens of languages. The company did embrace an app called Beekeeper to send mass text-messages to employees in the language of their choice, but it still struggles to understand how well employees are engaging with those communications. 

Some of the CDC’s recommendations related to training and communication will sound just like anti-corruption training missteps all over again — which may be a good thing, actually. Because at least compliance officers will know the lessons they’ve learned before to avoid the same mistakes now.

One Other Smithfield Lesson

One related but important point: employees at another Smithfield processing plant in Missouri also filed a lawsuit against the company in federal court last week. They claim that Smithfield’s failure to take appropriate safety measures at their planti creates a public nuisance — because sick employees infect coworkers, who then go home and infect others in the local community. 

The crucial paragraph from a New York Times article about the lawsuit: 

Source: NY Times

Understand what the lawsuit really demonstrates. The risks around a longstanding corporate vs. employee battlefield — health troubles created by an unforgiving work environment — have changed, thanks to Covid-19. If companies don’t respond to that changed risk, they could create a new litigation risk for themselves: a lawsuit alleging that poor Covid-19 protections create a public nuisance. 

Yet another reason to remediate Covid-19 risks as quick as your company can — in case caring about employee welfare weren’t reason enough. 

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