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Industrial COVID-19 Outbreaks: Aftermath for Food Processor

Toby Graham /

This Is Exactly What You Don’t Want to Happen

“We could have done better.”

So said Josh Hinerfeld, CEO of Firestone Pacific Foods, after public health officials linked his company to 85 cases of COVID-19 a few weeks ago.

Like all companies fortunate enough to remain in business over the last few months, the Vancouver, Washington-based fruit processor was taking matters of employee health and safety seriously. Company leadership and management were working to minimize the spread of the virus.

Or so Hinerfield thought. As turns out, Firestone was too lax with its implementation and enforcement of COVID-prevention measures.

OregonLive reports:

“An investigator from Clark County’s public health department identified several areas of concern at the Firestone facility following the outbreak, including a lack of physical distancing on the production line and during breaks and the sharing of clock-in and clock-out paperwork.

Hinerfeld said that the company implemented daily health screenings for employees starting on March 20 and required employees to wear masks on April 29. But, he said, some employees were still working in close proximity on the production line and it was difficult to enforce the mask rule when employees went on break and ensure physical distancing in a small break room. The company set up a canopy outside in May to give workers another place to go during breaks.”

Now, Firestone is dealing with the fallout: significant business interruptions, negative publicity, and the effort of training the workforce to comply with a new 50-point health and safety plan—not to mention potential deaths and further infections. These myriad financial and human costs could have been avoided had the company done the right thing in the first place.

Hinerfield and Firestone aren’t the only ones learning these lessons the hard way.

You’ve probably heard about the thousands of workers at meat-processing companies such as Tyson who have contracted the coronavirus. And you’re probably aware of the fact that healthcare workers have been falling sick around the country due to ongoing personal protective equipment shortages.

But did you know about the woman in Utah suing her employer after she was allegedly denied personal protective equipment and developed symptoms?

Or the 162 workers in New Jersey who filed federal complaints about unsafe working conditions during the pandemic?

Indeed, there have been countless reports of people getting sick at work. And in nearly all cases, there’s an employer at the center, who—as Hinerfield suggests—could have done better.

Stories like these are exactly what we don’t want to happen right now. As the world slowly emerges from the first phase of the COVID-19 and people begin to return to work, we face the grim possibility that the worst is yet to come—more illnesses, more deaths, more business closures, more weeks and months hitting the “pause” button and desperately trying to figure out how to keep the economy going while limiting infection.

If we don’t do this right, we’ll see a second wave that could dwarf what we’ve experienced so far.

That future would be unimaginably bleak. But it isn’t inevitable. Now is the time to create and implement a truly complete employee health and safety program—no shortcuts, no compromises, no guesswork, no “good enough.” The only thing that’s good enough is zero infections.

Don’t become another news story or OSHA press release. Don’t become another source of pain and suffering in this world. Take the time to learn how to return to work safely.

If you need help, call us—we’re here to serve you, your workforce, your customers, and your community.

Keep your people safe and healthy with KPA.

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