National Frozen Foods in Albany failed to implement physical distancing policies after knowing that multiple employees who worked on packaging lines in the facility tested positive for COVID-19, according to a news release from Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The state workplace safety watchdog has cited the company, with a proposed penalty of $2,000, for failing to protect workers from the spread of the illness.
An outbreak connected to National Frozen Foods in Albany has sickened at least 34 people, including 30 workers and four family or household members, Linn County Public Health announced May 6. That number had not been updated by Linn County as of Monday.
National Frozen Foods has 30 days to appeal the citation.
The citation from Oregon OSHA stems from an inspection launched April 20 in response to multiple complaints about the facility.
Under a state executive order aimed at slowing the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are required to maintain physical distancing policies to keep workers at least 6 feet apart.
The practice at National Frozen Foods ran counter to those requirements, according to Oregon OSHA’s investigation, which included interviews of employees. The company allowed 18 employees — stationed at frozen food packaging lines nine at a time during day and swing shifts — to work at a distance of 2 feet to 4 feet from each other. The company allowed this practice to continue after workers tested positive for COVID-19, according to the news release.
“We expect employers to follow the appropriate requirements to protect workers against the spread of this disease,” said Michael Wood, administrator of Oregon OSHA, in the news release. “Continuing to do business as usual at the expense of worker safety is not acceptable.”
Oregon OSHA’s approach to fines is to impose modest penalties in the first instance for violations that are not willful or repeat violations, said a spokesman for the agency.
“It is also important to not take the penalty amount in isolation. We require employers to correct serious hazards. And if they don’t abate the hazard, then they risk substantially higher penalties,” wrote Aaron Corvin, public information officer for Oregon OSHA.
National Frozen Foods apparently failed to institute proper safety measures for days.
An April 16 memo from Plant Manager Larry Hargreaves to National Frozen Foods employees obtained by the newspaper discusses two initial confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the facility. “We have verified with the Health Department we should continue our regular work schedule. If you feel you have been exposed and need to self-quarantine, please inform the HR department,” Hargreaves wrote.
Production at the facility shut down for about two weeks starting April 23. At that time, eight employees and two family members had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Linn County.
More employees developed symptoms, and the caseload increased. On May 1, National Frozen Foods tested 191 employees even though they were asymptomatic. An additional 10 employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to the news release.
Information on the outbreak has been limited. Linn County Public Health’s news release from last week included information voluntarily provided by National Frozen Foods. Linn County has said that it is following state guidelines in not releasing information about the coronavirus hotspot.
On May 4 a spokesman with the Oregon Health Authority said that state law prevented Oregon from releasing information about the National Frozen Foods outbreak or similar case clusters due to privacy concerns, as individuals with COVID-19 could be identified if numbers were released.
National Frozen Foods employs more than 300 people at its Albany plant, which opened in 1982.
processes beans, cut corn, squash, vegetable purees and cream-style corn, according to the company’s website.