Inside the O’Brien Fine Foods factory in lockdown Kildare

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An O’Brien Fine Foods employee at the processing facility in Timahoe, Co Kildare. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

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It was 6am on Monday July 27th when ‘A’, the man who would become the third confirmed Covid-positive case at O’Brien Fine Foods in Timahoe, Co Kildare arrived to start his shift.

He had travelled to work at the remote site in rural Kildare in a car with three others, and went in through the staff entrance. He walked along the corridor, and stood in front of the hi-tech, full-body scanner. “Please stand close for taking temperature. Normal temperature,” the machine announced. He was cleared to start work.

He put his belongings away in a locker, and walked past the entrance to the canteen, which has been set up since March to allow for social distancing. Then he donned personal protection equipment (PPE) before going down to the factory floor.

Fifty minutes later, he was asked to come off the floor. He had been coughing and sneezing, and employees working near him were worried. He was advised to get tested, and asked to share his results with management. Before he went home, he completed the company questionnaire to assist with identifying close contacts in case he came back positive.

Since March, employees showing any kind of symptoms have routinely been sent for testing. “From March 9th up to July 27th, we tested over 50 people sporadically,” says John O’Brien, who now runs the family owned business bought by his father, Bill.

It comes from the community into the factories, it spreads in the factories, then it goes back out into the communities

The O’Brien family have tended to keep out of the spotlight. Before two weeks ago, few people would even have associated the O’Brien Fine Foods name with Brady Family Ham, the brand that sponsors of Kildare GAA, camogie and women’s football – and is nationally known for a memorable 2019 TV ad, featuring the lyric ‘Come out you other hams, come and face me ham-to-ham’ to the tune of ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’.

But the events of the last two weeks changed all that.

Before July 27th, there had been two confirmed positive cases among O’Brien’s staff, both of whom had been exposed to the virus outside of work. They were contained immediately, and the employees’ close contacts taken off the factory floor. Nobody else got infected.

Then A got sick.

Visors and masks

We are in the empty PPE room, donning the same heavy-duty PPE that employees wear: white rubber boots, which are washed before we walk onto the factory floor; blue overcoat; hairnet; visor. The only difference between what I put on and the protective gear worn by employees since March is that we also wear face masks. HSE advice was to wear either visors or masks; since the recent cases, O’Brien’s has introduced both. Signage on the walls in English, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian and Moldovan reminds employees to practice social distancing.

It’s immediately obvious why wearing both visor and mask might make life difficult for people operating machinery in a factory environment. As we move through different parts of the now mostly-empty factory – from a room kept at 10 degrees to an oven room next door – the visor keeps fogging up, and it is even harder to hear over the roar of machinery.

O’Brien points out that if you’re not wearing a facemask under your visor, it doesn’t fog – which means it’s not keeping your breath in. “In hindsight these,” he says, pointing to the facemask, “are more important.”

An O’Brien Fine Foods employee putting on PPE at the processing facility in Timahoe, Co Kildare. Photograph: Naoise Culhane
An O’Brien Fine Foods employee putting on PPE at the processing facility in Timahoe, Co Kildare. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

The experience of wearing heavy boots and a condensation-covered visor, unable to see or hear properly, is disconcerting. More than once, I have to resist the urge to lift the visor, and I can imagine how people working here might feel the same.

By the time A’s positive test results came back at lunchtime on Thursday, July 30th, Covid-19 had already begun its silent creep through the factory floor, into the management offices upstairs, infecting people who worked in the warehouse building nearby, and even someone who worked alone in the brine make-up room.

O’Brien had no idea about any of this yet, but the alarm bells starting ringing when A’s test results came back. “It felt a bit different to the other two. He had been on site. We immediately took his close contacts off the floor. But,” he says, candidly, “that was our first mistake. We should have taken them off the floor on Monday.”

The man who tested positive had five close contacts, between those he worked with and those he car-pooled with.

One suggestion about outbreaks in meat plants is that people who work in them are poorly paid, live together in crowded conditions and travel to work together. They do not always get sick pay, and even when they are entitled to, it’s suggested that they do not always trust they will get it, so they are less inclined to stay off work than people in other sectors.

On the day we meet, claims were made by Siptu before an Oireachtas committee that more than 40 migrants were sharing a house in Edenderry, Co Offaly, 17km away.

Noel Cribbin, a postman in Edenderry, who is also a councillor on Offaly County Council, told the Irish Times he was sceptical about those claims, but suggested up to 12 migrant workers would commonly share a three or four-bedroom house, even sharing beds with those on alternating shifts, in a so-called hot-bedding arrangement.

“The Eastern European people working here … are all on good money, anything from €22,000 up to €26,000 at factory floor level. They’re renting houses. Some own houses,” says O’Brien. For employees living in house shares, it’s usually “four to a house – that’s the norm”.

A statement by the company says that “processing team members are paid €10.85 to €12.75 per hour. In addition, there are also benefits such as life assurance and additional holidays.”

This is borne out by redacted payslips seen by the Irish Times.

A lot of our staff are taking a lot of heat in Kildare right now. They haven’t done anything wrong.

Since March, the company has offered employees full sick pay and the services of an on-site GP. Apart from two cleaners employed through an agency, “all our staff are on Irish law contracts, employed directly by us.”

Thirty-six per cent of the 306 employees in Timahoe are Irish. “And 17 per cent of the positive cases were Irish,” O’Brien says.

They include people on the senior management team.

‘Too many links’

O’Brien organised the testing and contact tracing of the five close contacts of A. Two of them – the people he had driven into work with – tested positive.

The team spent the long weekend gathering additional information from those employees. They found that a number had attended a social event three weeks previously. The husband of another employee was discovered to be self-isolating, having potentially been exposed to Covid-19 in his job at Irish Dog Foods.

Two others had been routinely sharing lifts with employees of another affected plant, Kildare Chilling Company. At that stage, “we said, we don’t know how bad this is . . . There are too many links here. So we decided to test everyone.”

On Tuesday, August 4th, 243 employees were tested at the plant. Of those, the HSE agreed to test the 70 or so people on A’s immediate shift. A further 170 were tested by a private company, Code Blue, paid for by O’Briens.

On the morning of Wednesday, August 5th, everyone passed through the temperature scanner as normal. Nobody had a temperature. And then, “on Wednesday lunchtime, we got a call from Code Blue to say… your numbers are not good.”

Out of 170 tests, there were 45 positives. O’Brien was stunned. The results from the shift tested by the HSE came that evening, bring the total number of positives to 80. On Wednesday, he had the identities of those who had come up positive in the Code Blue tests. “We didn’t get the names of the people tested by the HSE until the Thursday.”

At 9pm on Wednesday, processing was shut down, and everyone was sent home on full pay, except for six people who were cleared by the HSE to keep working in the warehouse, and five more I see on the factory floor.

O’Brien sought out expert PR advice that evening. The decision was taken to prioritise “facts and speed”. The advice he was given focused on transparency. Four statements were issued over the subsequent days and a key questions and answers document was put up online. The company is keen to make clear that all steps regarding closure and testing were taken proactively, prior to any requirements imposed by the HSE.

By the end of the week, another 42 tests had been done on the remaining employees, resulting in six more positives. With processing now stopped, the company announced that more employee testing would be conducted on days seven and 14.

O’Brien walks me through the almost empty plant. As he points out land owned by the company which was previously owned by John Gilligan before it was seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau, a hare bounds across the deserted car park. There are just a few employees in different areas of the building; he seems to know them all by name.

On the factory floor, he shows me all of the places where the employees who later tested positive were working. It’s hard to see any clear pattern of spread. In some situations, the employees worked within one arm’s length of one other, separated by Perspex screens. But in others, they worked alone.

A study in the British Medical Journal which looked at an outbreak at a meat factory in Gütersloh, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, where more than 1,500 of 7,000 workers tested positive, concluded that the “virus thrives in lower temperatures and very high or very low relative humidity”; “metallic surfaces retain live viruses for longer” and employees shouting over the noise play a part.

It also questioned “the possibility of airborne spread and the role of air filtration systems”. O’Brien says the question of whether the temperature in the factory and the air circulation system, which recycles 60 per cent of the air, may be playing a role “is something we’re looking at.”

The Brady Family Ham factory in Timahoe, Co Kildare. Photograph: Tom Honan
The Brady Family Ham factory in Timahoe, Co Kildare. Photograph: Tom Honan

He is aiming to get that ratio down to 30 per cent, so that 70 per cent of the air being circulated in the factory is fresh.

The BMJ report points to factors like the insecurity of employment in the sector and “limited or non-existent hygiene measures”. It’s fair to say that’s not a reflection of the infection control measures here – I am wearing more PPE than when I reported from a Covid ward in a hospital. However, O’Brien admits that not doubling up with a face mask and visor from March was “a mistake”, even if it was in line with HSE advice.

Test challenges

When I visit, seven days after the initial test results, and O’Brien is still trying to pin down the day seven tests, which have to be done by the HSE for data collection reasons. The HSE has been “helpful, as a whole”. The challenge in organising the tests today is due to strains on “capacity from the National Ambulance Service,” he suggests. The HSE did not reply to a request for information on this.

we didn’t intentionally bring the virus into our factory ... We’ve operated to the highest safety standards throughout. This thing just happened so quickly

The day seven tests were ultimately carried out last Thursday. Day 14 tests are due next week; after the factory reopens on August 24th, further testing will be paid for by the company and carried out at 14-day intervals.

What are the lessons to be learned from the outbreak, as we face into winter? O’Brien believes that public health messaging needs to be communicated in languages other than English and through channels more likely to reach migrant communities.

The government has announced weekly testing by the HSE in meat factories. O’Brien is waiting to hear whether this will include secondary processors like his. In fact, he would like to see testing happen not just in meat plants, but in “any environment where you’ve got a large cohort of people working in close proximity, and also maybe living in close proximity”.

The individual identified as A, O’Brien points out, “didn’t catch it here”.

“It comes from the community into the factories, it spreads in the factories, then it goes back out into the communities. So you have to be able to test a large number quickly and get the results back out quickly.”

Asymptomatic

Asymptomatic spread “is the biggest challenge heading into the winter.” So far, only three of the 86 employees who tested positive have shown any symptoms at all.

“They didn’t believe it” when they got their results. “They thought it was a conspiracy.

“A lot of our staff are taking a lot of heat in Kildare right now. They haven’t done anything wrong. We’ve made mistakes. But we didn’t intentionally bring the virus into our factory ... We’ve operated to the highest safety standards throughout. This thing just happened so quickly,” he says.

Sentiment locally towards O’Briens is positive, even with the mood strained in a locked-down county. Brendan Weld, a Fine Gael councillor and farmer who lives beside the Timahoe plant, says he has “heard nothing but good about this company.” Locals cite their sponsorship of Kildare GAA, rugby and other initiatives like Tidy Towns committees.

One woman, who doesn’t want to be named, describes the company as “a fantastic local employer, they really look after their workers and are very good to the community. People feel sorry for them that this has happened because they seem to have done everything right up to this, but I suppose it just shows you never know with this virus.”

- Additional reporting by Brian Hutton and Senan Hogan

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