Why are there so many coronavirus infections at meat plants?

The prolonged, close proximity of workers increases the risk of spreading the virus

Employees at meat plants work in prolonged close proximity to other workers, increasing the risk of transmitting the virus. Photograph: Bloomberg

Employees at meat plants work in prolonged close proximity to other workers, increasing the risk of transmitting the virus. Photograph: Bloomberg

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What is the scale of infection in meat processing plants?

There are 16 coronavirus clusters – each defined as two or more cases – in meat plants involving 828 infected workers, as of last Saturday. This is an increase from 500 a week earlier when there were 12 clusters. Some 16 meat factory workers have been hospitalised during the pandemic. HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry put the number of infected workers at 860 on Wednesday.

Why are meat plants susceptible to outbreaks?

Employees at meat plants work in prolonged close proximity to other workers, increasing the risk of transmitting the virus. The rigid production lines, often involving for example in a conveyor belt of pig carcasses on hooks passing along a factory’s “kill line”, means that the nature of the work is at close quarters involving repeated activity by hundreds of staff standing shoulder to shoulder. As an essential industry producing food, meat plants were not closed during the pandemic.

How busy can it be in a meat plant?

Butchering, when not automated, is a fast and heavily labour-intensive process. For example, the processing of as many as 450 pigs per hour – or seven pigs processed along the line every minute – means that each worker often only has a few seconds to complete their task of cutting on each animal.

Can the process contribute to the spread of the virus?

Possibly. The gruelling nature and pace of the meat processing, cutting up so many animals in a short space of time, means butchering can involve strenuous physical exertion and heavy breathing by employees. The boning hall of a plant can also involve large numbers of workers congregating around a common table in another physically demanding part of the process.

What other conditions might lead to the spread of the virus?

Conditions in plants can be hot with workers butchering warm carcasses with knives that must be repeatedly sterilised at high temperatures. This can create a steamy atmosphere. Some plants can be poorly ventilated, contributing to the spread, while physically distancing may not have been observed in worker common areas such as at sinks or in canteens and changing rooms.

Could other factors contribute to the spread at meat plants?

Yes. Many meat plants employ lower-paid foreign workers who share accommodation outside of work, where they could have acquired the virus and can spread it further. Public health officials has been offering alternative accommodation to workers at risk of passing the virus on.

What precautions have plants taken to prevent the spread of the virus?

Plants have reduced production by processing fewer animals, staggered working shifts and staff departures and arrivals, and reconfigured production lines including installing partitions, where possible, to ensure workers maintain two-metre physical distancing.