Cal/OSHA has issued citations to frozen food manufacturer Overhill Farms Inc. and its temporary employment agency Jobsource North America Inc. with over $200,000 in proposed penalties to each employer for failing to protect hundreds of employees from COVID-19 at two plants in Vernon.
The employers did not take any steps to install barriers or implement procedures to have employees work at least six feet away from each other and they did not investigate any of their employees’ COVID-19 infections, including more than 20 illnesses and, in the case of Overhill Farms, one death.
According to a report in the Los Angeles times, the move followed the first fines announced for coronavirus safety violations last week. Cal/OSHA cited 11 employers in industries that included food processing, retail, agriculture, meatpacking and healthcare, and proposed penalties ranging from $2,025 to $51,190.
On April 28, Cal/OSHA opened inspections with Overhill Farms and Jobsource after receiving complaints of hazards related to COVID-19. The inspections included visits to two facilities in Vernon where Overhill Farms employees and workers from Jobsource manufacture a variety of frozen foods.
Cal/OSHA said it found hundreds of employees were exposed to serious illness from COVID-19 due to the lack of physical distancing procedures among workers including where they clock in and out of their shift, at the cart where they put on gloves and coats, in the break room, on the conveyor line and during packing operations.
At the larger of the two facilities Cal/OSHA said it identified 330 employees of Overhill Farms and 60 employees of Jobsource were exposed to the virus from the lack of physical distancing. At the smaller facility, Cal/OSHA found 80 Overhill Farms workers and 40 employees of Jobsource did packing operations, worked in the marinating area and processed raw poultry without any distancing procedures or protective barriers in place.
Other violations that put workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19 include the failure by both employers to train employees on the hazards presented by the virus and failure to investigate any of the more than 20 COVID-19 illnesses and one death Cal/OSHA uncovered amongst their employees.
The employers did not adequately communicate the COVID-19 hazards to their workforce, and Overhill did not report a COVID-19 fatality to Cal/OSHA.
The COVID-19 related violations cited at both plants include $222,075 in proposed penalties to Overhill Farms and $214,080 in proposed penalties to Jobsource, with an additional $14,450 in proposed penalties for Overhill Farms for non-COVID related violations.
Cal/OSHA also issued citations to both employers from inspections of two accidents in February, after one worker at each of the two facilities was injured when their hands got caught in unguarded conveyor parts. These accident inspections resulted in citations with $103,780 in proposed penalties to Overhill Farms, including for repeat violations due to a similar accident in 2016, and $29,700 in proposed penalties to Jobsource.
Overhill Farms said that it would contest the agency’s “erroneous” allegations, adding that Cal/OSHA has falsely claimed that the company failed to install Plexiglas dividers.
“The health and safety of our employees is our first priority,” the company said in a statement. “Overhill Farms has not only taken steps in line with the constantly evolving federal, state and local guidance, we have gone above and beyond those recommendations as we developed our employee safety procedures.”
Officials with Jobsource said they also planned to dispute the citations.
“We take the health and safety of all of our team members very seriously and we believe that we have not done anything that would endanger anyone in our community,” the company said in a statement.