On May 4, U.S. pork capacity reached its lowest point, with 45.9% of plants idled due to employee cases of COVID-19. According to Steve Meyer, an economist with Partners for Production Agriculture, six plants were closed that day, backing up an initial 234,005 head. Since the pandemic began, Seaboard Foods in Guymon, Okla.; Prestage Foods of Iowa in Eagle Grove, Iowa; and Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Mo., have not had to close facilities down due to the virus, but representatives from the three companies say they have all been strongly impacted.
"COVID has had a significant impact on all businesses, not only with those employees who became positive with the virus, but also on those impacted by loss of child care, those caring for sick family members, and those isolating away from others out of an abundance of caution," says Jere Null, CEO of Prestage Foods of Iowa. "In addition to the labor impact, we also incurred expenses with additional sanitizing for the facility, routine temperature monitoring for inbound employees, aerosol spraying of common areas, installation of shielding on production lines, and the opening of additional training and cafeteria seating to promote social distancing.
"Furthermore, we are in a growth stage. Our applicant flow has diminished, as people are generally avoiding seeking new employment during this pandemic."
Being labeled an "essential business," Triumph Foods representatives say the pandemic put pressure on its business and its staff, but the entire team stepped up to the challenge and has responded well to a difficult situation.
"Our employees have seen the impact through additional safety steps and procedures we have undertaken, but it has all been done to keep people safe in the workplace," the company said in a statement.
Partnering with states
Early on, Triumph Foods, like many other businesses, had challenges obtaining personal protective equipment. In fact, it found itself competing against governmental entities for supplies.
"We had to tap into many different resources to secure what we needed to keep our workers outfitted with the appropriate protection," the company says. "The state of Missouri was a big help in securing some PPE we needed, and they were also instrumental in securing virus testing kits.
"We decided to proactively test our employees on-site, and we did this in partnership with the state of Missouri and with our local public health department, with assistance from the Missouri National Guard. This effort allowed us to identify and isolate individuals who were asymptomatic, which is key to helping stop the spread of the coronavirus."
Null also credits working with the state of Iowa on testing in keeping infections down. In April, Prestage Foods received confirmation from the Iowa Department of Public Health that 16 employees at the Eagle Grove site tested positive for COVID-19. All were asymptomatic.
Due to the outcome of these tests and that all "positives" were asymptomatic, Prestage Foods along with the Wright County Board of Supervisors and the Wright County Board of Health requested assistance from the Iowa State Emergency Operations Center and Gov. Kim Reynolds to gain access to 950 tests. The request was granted immediately, and testing of all Prestage employees began the following Monday morning.
"Iowa has done a wonderful job with access to testing and coordinating testing," Null says. "We have been proactive with our employees and conducted testing for everyone in the entire facility twice to attempt to track and isolate cases. Early proactive testing allowed us to detect those who needed isolation and identify any potential hot spots in our workplace. We believe this testing helped reduce risks early on, resulting in overall less infections in the bulk of our population."
In May, when COVID-19 tests were limited, Seaboard Foods also took a preemptive step and partnered with the Oklahoma State Department of Health to conduct testing at the Guymon facility. David Eaheart, Seaboard Foods senior director of communications and brand marketing, says this was an essential step in keeping employees safe, and honoring a company promise to listen to employees who asked for broader testing.
"Since then, we continue to work with the local health department and community medical providers, and our message to our employees continues to be 'Stay home if you're feeling sick, and get tested at one of the community testing events provided by the health department or with your medical provider,' " Eaheart says. "These partnerships with public health experts build on the comprehensive protocols and operational investments and controls we've implemented at the plant level to help protect our employees and reduce potential transmission."
Ensuring safe operations
Since most surface areas (floors, walls, equipment) in a food plant are designed for routine cleaning and sanitation, Null says this was an advantage for the pork processor over a general manufacturing or industrial site.
"By nature, food plants are routinely sanitized, and employees understand the importance of regular hand-washing," Null says. "Most industries do not have the benefit of thorough foaming and wash-downs of all surfaces nightly. We were able to add procedures to non-production areas (stairwells, cafeteria, locker rooms, etc.) that reduced likely spread as well."
Prestage began spraying aerosol disinfectant early in the pandemic to ensure common areas were routinely sanitized. "This has included our HVAC ducts," Null says. "It's our belief that this practice has had a positive impact."
Triumph Foods representatives say they also implemented several new safety features that all work together to mitigate the spread of the virus; however, it's been the mandatory use of masks at all times and incorporating social distancing that have been key steps from the start, and reinforce what health officials say workers should also be doing outside of the workplace. The company also continuously educates and reiterates to staff that if they are ill or have symptoms, they should not come to work and to seek medical assessment.
"Protecting the health and safety of our employees is our No. 1 priority, so all of the enhanced precautions we have implemented are the 'new normal' for us moving forward. These new safety measures are not short-term; they are permanent and are a part of everyday life for Triumph Foods team members," Triumph Foods says. "Until more is learned about combating and eradicating the coronavirus, we owe it to our workers and our community to make sure we are doing all we can to help prevent its spread. We will also continue internal education programs with our employees on how to remain vigilant against the spread of the virus, by using provided hand sanitizer and face coverings, and practicing social distancing whenever possible."
Seaboard Foods' response to COVID-19
As the COVID-19 pandemic started to affect the Guymon, Okla., community, David Eaheart says Seaboard Foods adapted to ensure operations remained a safe place to work.
Seaboard Foods' new protocols include:
- Face masks. Requiring everyone who enters Seaboard Foods facilities to wear a face mask. In addition to requiring face masks in the plant and other parts of the operations, the company has made face shields available to plant employees. The company also provides masks to employees to help them safely get to and from work.
- Temperature checks. Opening temperature-taking stations in the plant for all employees and providing thermometers for employee monitoring in other parts of the operations. Anyone with a fever is sent home.
- Health assessment. Asking any employees who do not feel well to be assessed by health services or web-based medical services, and to stay home and self-isolate.
- More touch-free hand sanitizers. Increasing the number of touch-free hand sanitizers in all operations.
- Plant sanitization. Sanitizing the plant and equipment using anti-bacterial and antiviral cleansers on a daily basis.
- More common area cleaning. Increasing custodial services in employee common areas and commonly touched surfaces to help maintain a healthy workplace. Designating employees to regularly clean and sanitize high-contact surfaces, break rooms and bathrooms frequently.
- Distance barriers, plexiglass. Implementing physical distancing barriers and markers throughout the plant's common areas and installing protective systems like plexiglass dividers on select production line workstations, cafeteria tables, cash registers and extra seating.
- Additional time clocks. Installing additional clock-in and clock-out stations to reduce lines and congestion.
- Educational signs in all relevant languages. Continuing to post new educational signage in the languages that employees speak in all offices and facilities to ensure proper respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene.
- Screening of vendors and suppliers. Implementing a screening process for all vendors and suppliers before allowing access to Seaboard Foods locations to work, and only granting access to essential vendors and suppliers.
- Cooperation with local health departments. Working with the local health departments — if the company is made aware of a confirmed coronavirus case — to notify employees, customers and community partners as contract tracing is conducted.
Going forward, Null says Prestage Foods will continue to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice for employee protocol.
"Certainly, for the foreseeable future, masks and temperature checks will remain in place," Null says. "We think extra shielding and distancing on production lines also makes sense moving forward."
Triumph Foods says it has done its best to add new policies, procedures, features and equipment to the workplace to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus. However, the company says its leaders and staff know they cannot get complacent.
"We will continue to look at ways to enhance what we are doing," Triumph Foods representatives say. "The health and safety of our workers is our top priority, so anything we can do to help ensure this is important."
Plans for Triumph Foods facilities include adding automatic hand-sanitizer turnstiles, which sanitize employees' hands before they are allowed into the building; and automatic hand-washing stations, which are currently being tested. "These types of small changes in process help promote the heightened sense of vigilance and awareness that we feel is important for enabling people to prevent the spread of the virus and to safeguard themselves, their families and the community," the company says.
Null says the biggest takeaway for Prestage Foods has been how important it was to acknowledge and respond to the situation right away.
"We were relatively early with proactive mass testing, masks and social distancing," he says. "We believe it helped us avoid massive spikes."
Eaheart credits employee commitment for remaining operational during the pandemic.
"The health of our employees is paramount, and our work is considered essential. Our plant and farm operations have remained operational with the support of federal, state and local health authorities — and most importantly, because our Seaboard Foods employees have adapted and risen to the challenge," Eaheart says. "We will continue navigating the balance of ensuring the well-being of our employees while still working to meet our commitment to produce much-needed food for our customers and pork consumers."
Triumph Foods representatives echo Eaheart's comments. "At the beginning of the year, no one could have ever expected what we would be going through for the past five months. Nonetheless, we are proud of the diligence and commitment exhibited by our team members, as well as the willingness to adapt and make changes in response to a challenging situation — one that is still impacting people throughout the community and beyond."