• Tarsila Machado

COVID-19 Outbreaks Among U.S. Food Processing and Manufacturing Employees

Source: Pexel

COVID-19 outbreaks at agricultural facilities and food processing and manufacturing plants across the United States have been a major area of concern since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. The high-density nature of these workplaces, combined with lackluster COVID-19 prevention regulations, have contributed to the increased number of outbreaks observed in these facilities across the country.

Additionally, racial and ethnic disparities observed among positive COVID-19 cases, relative to overall demographics within these facilities, signal the impact of broader social factors at play.

Improvements in working, living, and transportation, along with culturally appropriate outreach efforts for employees and upper management, are required to improve the health outcomes of the workers most at-risk in the U.S. food and agriculture industry.

A recently updated CDC report on COVID-19 case data found that from March 1 to May 31 of 2020, 8,978 workers across 742 food and agriculture facilities in 30 U.S. states had confirmed positive COVID-19 cases, with 55 workers reportedly dying from contracting the disease. Among 239 meat and poultry processing plants, 16,233 COVID-19 cases and 86 deaths occurred.

Lack of social distancing, little use of face masks or other PPE (personal protective equipment), few sanitation measures, and inadequate ventilation were cited as major contributors to recent outbreaks. Prolonged close contact during work shifts, shared modes of transportation, congregate housing, and overall frequent contact between employees outside of the workplace, were also found to be significant risk factors.

Racial and ethnic disparities were prevalent among workers affected by COVID-19 within these workplaces. About 83% of infections in food manufacturing and agriculture facilities and 87% in meat or poultry processing plants occurred among Hispanic/Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Black employees. Among all food manufacturing and agriculture workers in the states that reported demographics, 36.5% of workers are Hispanic/Latinx, 52.6% are White, 5.9% are Black, 3.5% are Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1.5% are of other race or ethnicity groups. However, among workers infected with COVID-19, 72.8% were Hispanic or Latinx, 6.3% were Black, and 4.1% were Asian/Pacific Islander. These numbers suggest that racial and ethnic minorities in the industry are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Source: CDC

Efforts to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 in these facilities are largely centered around reducing workplace exposures exclusively. Conducting more frequent mass testing, contact tracing, and screening precautions upon entry of facilities—to increase detection of pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals—can also help control the spread. Improvements in sanitation and hygiene practices, along with increased social distancing, mask-wearing, and ventilation inside these facilities, are needed to better mitigate transmission of the virus indoors. Employer distribution of PPE, masks, and cleaning supplies, along with staggered employee schedules to allow for greater physical distance between individuals can facilitate these recommendations. Additionally, allowing and encouraging employees to take paid sick leave and self-isolate after a positive COVID-19 test or known exposure is key to containing the spread.

Addressing outside socioeconomic factors and providing culturally appropriate health education materials in several languages may also help to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and outcomes. With these strategies to create better workplace safety and disease prevention measures, the U.S. food and agriculture industry can take the necessary steps to control the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities, and increase health equity for its most vulnerable workers.


Speaking Plainly

  • COVID-19 outbreaks in U.S. agricultural facilities and food processing or manufacturing plants are a serious concern.

  • Racial and ethnic disparities were found in the COVID-19 outbreaks among these workers, with about 83% of reported positive cases in agriculture and food manufacturing and 87% in meat and poultry processing plants observed in Hispanic/Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Black employees.

  • Increased risk factors for employees included prolonged close contact during work shifts and frequent community contact between employees outside of work.

  • Improvement of workplace safety regulations is needed to improve these outcomes among vulnerable agriculture and food processing or manufacturing employees.