Officials in Iowa's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) waited over a week before contacting Tyson Fresh Meats in Perry, Iowa and declined to inspect the facility after receiving a workplace complaint, according to documents obtained by CNN through an open records request.
A review of the complaint filed in April alleges workers inside a Tyson pork processing plant in Perry were "elbow to elbow" and at risk of exposure to Covid-19. The complaint, first reported by the Associated Press, was filed on April 11. Iowa OSHA did not reach out to Tyson Fresh Meats about the complaint until April 20, the same day Tyson paused operations for a deep cleaning of the facility, , according to documents reviewed by CNN.
Tyson would reopen the plant on April 22, only to suspend operations again on April 24, for testing purposes. The Perry Tyson plant resumed operations on May 4, a day before the state health department announced more than 700 employees had tested positive for Covid-19.
At the time the complaint was filed, the number of Covid-19 positive employees was unknown because neither Dallas County Public Health officials nor Tyson Foods had made that information available. However, there were reports in local news outlets of employees testing positive, and local officials and activists had spent days attempting to pressure Tyson to close the plant for cleaning and testing before it did.
The complaint also alleges social distancing guidelines were not being followed on the production floor or in the cafeteria. The reason listed on the complaint for deciding against an inspection of the facility is "Covid-19."
Responses to the complaint
According to documents, state OSHA officials sent a letter by email to the source to acknowledge receipt of the complaint on April 13. On April 20, officials attempted to contact Tyson by phone and email to discuss the complaint. In a letter to Tyson, Iowa OSHA also says they "are not conducting an inspection at this time." The letter goes on to say, "Since allegations of violations have been made, you should investigate the alleged condition(s) and make any necessary corrections or modifications."
The letter also says: "If we do not receive a response from you within 5 working days indicating that appropriate action has been taken or that no hazards exist and why, an inspection may be conducted."
In emails obtained by CNN between a manager for the Tyson Perry plant and Iowa OSHA, Tyson provided a timeline for actions taken inside the plant to implement CDC and OSHA guidelines at the Perry facility-including beginning to install partitions on the production floor on April 13 and mandating face masks on April 15.
Not mentioned in Tyson's response are plans to suspend operations on April 20 or to mass test employees on April 25. The complaint was closed on April 28-four days after the plant announced it would suspend operations a second time to test workers.
Lawmakers ask for answers
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said at a press conference last Tuesday that state OSHA regulators acted appropriately. "It appears that they followed normal and their appropriate process," Gov. Reynolds said.
The Tyson plant in Perry paused operations to "test team members and conduct a deep clean of the entire facility", according to Tyson. When the plant resumed operations on May 4, a spokesperson told CNN via email that all team members returning to work at the Perry facility had been tested and protective equipment had been installed during the closure.
The next day, Iowa's Director of Public Health identified the Perry plant as one of five workplace locations in the state that experienced a Covid-19 outbreak, meaning more than 10% of the employee population had tested positive for coronavirus. At that time, the Tyson plant in Perry had 730 positive cases, 58% of the plant's employees.
Now, lawmakers are asking for answers. Congresswoman Cindy Axne is calling for an investigation into the Iowa OSHA's handling of the complaint.
"Iowans are going to depend on Iowa OSHA...therefore, the public must know why a direct complaint of unsafe conditions failed to produce any confirmation of an outbreak," Rep. Axne said in a statement.
The letter asks for public disclosure on the timeline OSHA operated under and the reason an on-site inspection as not performed.
In April, the Iowa Department of Public Health reached out to the Centers for Disease Control to help deal with more meat processing plants in the state reporting Covid-19 positive employees and managing the outbreaks.
According to documents obtained by government watchdog group Accountable.US and provided to CNN, the Iowa Department of Health's medical director, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, emailed the CDC on April 15 asking for on-site assistance. The same day, the two agencies hold a conference call to discuss assistance for Covid-19 outbreaks at meat processing facilities. IDPH declines to make a formal request, asking for more time to gather "information from our partners."
On April 20, the CDC emails Dr. Pedati outlining how the agency can help on the ground offering help with contact tracing, foreign language skills, and coordinating employee screenings. No further emails between the two were provided.