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An explanation

May 13, 2020
By David Kruse - Columnist , Farm News

A recent Commstock report, "Test all Packing Plant Workers and their Families" brought out a response from an industry insider telling me that testing is exactly what they are doing or attempting to do. For purposes of explanation I am going to make you the top-level management of a packing plant so that we can tell the story of what you have been going through.

"There have reportedly been over 6000 Covid-19 positives in 48 plants. These numbers tend to be outdated as soon as they are released. Packing plant workers in the industry have tested positive for Covid-19 resulting in a number of deaths, several major neighboring plants have been idled as their plant management lost control of worker safety and health officials forced them to close down. You do not want that to happen at your plant. The situation is grim and you are trying to come up with a plan to retain your license to operate. That requires satisfying health authorities that you can operate safely. It also requires maintaining the confidence of your work force so that you can keep them safe and that they continue to come to work. One hurdle is that because of the nature of the work in the plant, you are unable to operate the plant with 6-foot separations at work stations so you have to come up with alternatives that will satisfy health officials and workers. You are trying to determine who is the controlling regulatory entitylocal health officials, state officials or the USDA/OSHA/CDC regulators. You focus on local officials because you know that they can shut you down but the real answer is all-of-the-above. A few of your workers became ill and were tested and found to be positive for Covid-19. You then traced their activities and coordinated the testing of their families. They were extremely grateful for that. Many plant workers are of ethnic groups, where multiple generations live under the same roof. Sometimes it is not the individual worker that fears the virus but the high risk in bringing it home to their extended families that causes them to call in sick. Paying bonuses will not get them to risk the lives of their family. Even bonuses will not work when co-workers get sick and then co-workers of those co-workers become ill. A few who were traced also tested positive. Being transparent, you share the results of the testing with the plant workforce. The next day absenteeism surges and the kill must be reduced 24%. There are many logistical problems such as adjusting the workforce to fill the holes in the line for specific jobs needing done. You also need to slow procurement by 24% so the incoming numbers of animals do not inundate the facilities. That will back up numbers in your supply chain causing a hurried evaluation of how that can be managed. How do you treat producers that need to bring you livestock that you cannot process? What do you do with your contract obligations?

Circling back, you need to come up with that plan to convince both workers and health authorities that it is safe for your plant to operate. Workers need to be convinced that they are essential and part of a valued team.

You decide that while you cannot socially distance workers in the plant that you can test them and their families and provide them with an extensive amount of protective gear. Your plan includes thermal screening, scattering breaks, adding social distance during breaks as well as distributing face masks, gloves, and smocks.

Your next management problem to solve is rounding up the quantity of test kits needed to test all the workers for Covid-19 and for antibodies and to trace back with additional testing through the families of any testing positive. You need to separate the positive workers from those that are negative, keep them in quarantine and then test again a couple more times until they are negative or have antibodies. That takes a lot of tests. You find that you are competing with companies in all industries with high concentrations of workers, who are reaching the same conclusions as to the need for testing as you had. Companies up and down the food supply chain and outside of it are all looking to acquire the same materials. They are all looking for tests and PPE. This industrial demand for these items competes with medical demand. Medical demand must be satisfied first. Your states Governor "gets it" and is working with you so that you get what you need so that you can test this week. Time is running out on the clock. You need PPE in days not weeks. If your plant's workforce blows up first as a result of a surge of positives you quickly become helpless having lost the initiative to implement this plan. Then the industry can start digging themselves out from under the glut of livestock that is getting more crushing every day as well as alleviate meat shortages at the meat counter. It is unlikely that even under the best of circumstances that the workforce will be back at pre-Covid-19 levels any time soon.

In a nutshell, what you want to achieve at your plant is herd immunity. You test all of the employees sort out those negative and those with antibodies and they can become your new core workforce. Those that test positive are quarantined and then retested until they too recover so that they can return to the work force. Any workers who test positive must be tracked, their families tested and all the threads of their activity tracked down to where the virus ends. That is not a simple endeavor. The healthy employees will still need to be periodically tested to make sure that no lose ends are missed and that you have essentially created a certified Covid-19-free workforce.

When the press asks you for a comment you tell them, "The situation at hand with plant closures is dire. It's a national emergency evolving right in front of our face. We have got to figure out who has immunity and keep them working so they can keep the plants running."

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.

 
 

 

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