WORTHINGTON — After Sunday’s announcement that Smithfield Foods was closing its Sioux Falls, South Dakota hog processing plant indefinitely after hundreds of employees tested positive for COVID-19, Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle was concerned about local processor, JBS.
JBS is Worthington’s largest employer with a workforce of approximately 2,200. Kuhle was aware of the growing fears resulting from Smithfield’s situation and wanted to learn more about what JBS was doing to keep its employees — and Worthington — safe.
So, the mayor contacted plant management Sunday night, and by Monday morning had secured a meeting and tour of the facility. The mayor was joined by City Administrator Steve Robinson and Councilman Mike Harmon. All three came away impressed.
“What they’re doing is an amazing job,” Kuhle said during Monday night’s Worthington City Council meeting. “There isn’t one inch of that plant that isn’t being touched by sanitizing or information (about safety) for the employees. I think they’re doing everything possible.”
“I really was amazed at all of the measures that they were taking,” Robinson added. “I knew that they were screening employees before they entered the grounds, but there were just all of these other measures with sanitizing, cleaning and protecting employees with face masks and face shields. They’re going through great lengths to ensure the safety and the welfare of the workers.
“It would be nice if everyone could do all the things that they’re doing,” Harmon said. “They’re doing everything that’s available to them employee-wise to prevent (COVID-19).”
Kuhle reported that JBS has enacted hygiene and safety measures that include: employee screening before entering (if temperature is 100.4 degrees or above, they are referred to a nurse for further evaluation); employees passing through a foot foam bath before entering the facility; sanitization of sidewalks and entries every three hours; mandatory wearing of masks throughout the plant; wearing of Bedford Industries plastic face shields by many in the plant; sanitizing teams employed constantly throughout the plant; a deep cleaning of the plant each weekend; propping open of many doors to minimize touch; availability of hand sanitizer pumps at every entry and exit in the plant; and quarantining of employees returning from vacations as needed.
Office areas at the plant have been separated by plexiglass partitions, Kuhle added, with workstations on the lines separated by steel rods covered by plastic. In the cafeteria, new precautions include a switch to pre-packaged meals, removal of salad bars and stretching seating out to increase people’s distances from each other.
Kuhle, Robinson and Harmon were all impressed by the posting of work and public procedures all over the JBS plant; these have also been distributed by the unions.
“There’s a tremendous effort to keep all the employees informed, and they’re really encouraging them to follow the social distancing guidelines and to stay home when not at work and to avoid social gatherings,” Robinson said.
Other measures enacted by JBS that were cited by Kuhle included production workers using two sets of uniforms, which are cleaned in-house every night and handed out to employees as they enter the building each day.
“To me, they’re taking extraordinary steps to secure the health and welfare of all the people out there,” Robinson added.
Harmon said employee breaks at JBS are spread out to help encourage social distancing, and he praised ongoing sanitizing at the plant.
“I think they said they had 110 people on every shift that would go around sanitizing handrails and the walls continuously,” he said. “I was impressed with the number of hand sanitizers they had in the building … and by the number of notices they have on boards and pinned to walls, and in multiple languages.”
Kuhle, Robinson and Harmon each noted the cooperation between management and union workers in promoting heightened safety and hygiene at the plant.
“I’ve had discussions with both Len (Bakken, director of human resources) and Brad Hellinga (general manager) a couple of times over the previous weeks,” Robinson said. “I knew they were taking steps to monitor the health of people before they go in, but I didn’t know the extent of what they were doing before today.”
An email sent to Bakken last Thursday asking about safety precautions at JBS in Worthington resulted in a Friday reply from the company’s corporate communications department.
“As our community and our country collectively face the coronavirus challenge, the health and safety of our team members providing food for us all during this unprecedented time remains our top priority,” wrote JBS USA’s Nikki Richardson. “Food is an essential need, and our team is working hard to keep food on local grocery store shelves at a time when many Americans are unemployed, out of work or sheltering in place.”
A list of measures similar to what city officials saw Monday was included in Richardson’s email.
“The U.S. government has identified the food supply as a critical infrastructure industry and has stated we have a special responsibility to maintain normal work schedules on behalf of the nation,” she added. “We take this responsibility seriously.”