CDC Report: Language barriers slowed COVID-19 measures at Smithfield

Language barriers led to problems implementing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 at the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control.

The full report, released Thursday morning, also provided several additional guideline suggestions that the company can take going forward.

Smithfields Foods is currently the epicenter of South Dakota's COVID-19 outbreak. Over 700 employees have tested positive for the disease, and over 200 other cases are directly connected to the plant. Two employees have died from the disease. The plant, which employs around 3,700 people, temporarily closed earlier this month due to the outbreak.

One thing not discussed in the report - what may have led to the outbreak occuring in the first place. In a briefing Thursday, Sec. of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said inspectors were unable to comment on that because they were not there to observe conditions while the outbreak was happening.

CDC Inspection

A team of CDC inspectors toured Smithfield Foods on April 16 and 17, just under a week after the plant temporarily shuttered.

According to the report, inspectors were "unable to identify important demographic information about the workforce," limiting the team's ability to understand the diversity of the employees. However, plant management told the CDC that there were approximately 40 different languages spoken by employees in the plant, including Spanish, Kunama, Swahili, Nepali and Tigrinya, among many others.

Only a handful of employees were in the facility during the inspection, performing maintenance and distribution tasks. However, inspectors said several of the employees they did see were congregating less than six feet apart when away from their workstations.

The report also noted hand sanitizer dispensers and hand washing stations were located in "limited" areas around the plant, but management say they plant to increase the number of sanitizer stations to 3,500.

Challenges in implementing COVID-19 measures

The primary challenge the plant faced in deploying anti-COVID-19 strategies was the large number of languages spoken at the facility.

Inspectors noted the plant had posted informational flyers in some areas, some of which were printed in multiple languages and contained pictograms. However, it is unclear how many languages these were printed in, and inspectors said some were not easily legible or visible.

The report states the plant had recently started using a messaging app called "Beekeeper" that allowed management to mass-communicate with employees in a language of their choice. However, inspectors said it was unclear how widely employees were using the app, or even how many employees had smartphones to allow them to access the app.

Another challenge the plant faces is the large number of employees and the close-quarters nature of the work. Employees reported there were approximately 30 people in the locker room at any given time.

Management told inspectors some departments had reduced line speed to allow fewer employees to work in that area a time. They had also installed around 800 plexiglass barriers in other locations. In addition, tables in the cafeteria were spread out. Some outdoor tables had been added, but they were less than six feet apart.

Smithfield's plans to improve COVID-19 measures

The report listed several strategies management at the plant told the inspectors they were working to implement.

Some focused on improved communication by increasing engagement with the Beekeeper app. Management also hopes to improve use of its text messaging system, which is currently used by 1,400 employees.

Management also planned on developing improved procedures for high-traffic areas, and adding over 100 time clocks to prevent bottlenecks.

Smithfield also plans to relax sick leave policies during COVID-19, and eliminate co-pays and wait periods for COVID-19 testing.

The report also states management plans to institute a universal facemask requirement, and provide facemasks for all employees. The company also plans to provide face shields for all non-administrative employees moving forward.

CDC Recommendations

The report offered a number of guidelines Smithfield can follow to improve social distancing efforts, though none of them are mandatory.

In addition to the standard CDC social distancing guidelines, the CDC recommended adding visual cues at six-foot intervals, and consider ways to reduce employee density in non-work areas like locker rooms, break rooms, and the cafeteria.

The report also listed dozens of procedures specific to certain areas of the plant. It also suggested screening external drivers and contractors for COVID-19.

The CDC recommended providing COVID-19 information in more languages. They also suggested advising people who display signs of COVID-19 to find a way to self-isolate while at home.

Regarding sick leave, the CDC advised Smithfield to adjust any incentive programs in such a way that employees are not penalized for taking sick leave related to COVID-19.

More: Read the full CDC report here