Following confirmed cases in workers at its Sherman plant, Tyson Foods is outlining steps it is taking to protect workers and the public from COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the meat processor issued a press release confirming that a number of workers at its plant have tested positive for the viral infection.
Company officials declined to say how many confirmed cases have been found in Tyson Sherman employees. However, officials said the most recent case had been found as of Wednesday morning, with the earliest cases occurring about two weeks ago.
Company officials said it would be difficult to determine if the cases were contracted at the plant or elsewhere as they have not been able to draw a direct connection between the employees. Likewise, it remains unclear if the Tyson cases are included in the 60 confirmed cases in Grayson County.
“As part of our CDC-based protocol, a team member who tests positive remains on leave until they're released by health officials to return to work, the release said. ”We also affirmatively notify anyone who has been in close contact with the positive team member.”
Due to how cases are tracked, a case can be documented based out of where the patient lives, rather than where the confirmed test was conducted, county medical officials said. Currently, Tyson Sherman employs more than 1,700 employees reaching as far south as the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
In an average week, the employees at the Sherman plant may produce between 6 million and 8 million pounds of food. It is because of this high production of food that company officials said it is imperative that the Sherman facility remain in operation through the ongoing health crisis.
Wednesday, the Herald Democrat took a walk through the plant and saw first hand how the site is adapting to social distancing guidelines.
Employees filed in and out of the Sherman plant in two distinct lines Wednesday afternoon as one shift came to a close and another was about to start. Security and health services employees distributed paper masks for each employee while avoiding coming in direct contact. Meanwhile, others asked visitors a series of questions regarding their current health and any symptoms they may be exhibiting.
Tyson Complex Manager Bill McKeeman said plant managers have taken steps to alleviate congestion within the plant by eliminating overlapping shifts. Employees are also brought in and released gradually to keep groups from amassing at the entrance and within halls.
Inside the building, tracking the disease has taken a much more advanced approach. Employees entering the facility must first go through a thermal camera that will take employee temperatures. Once again, visitors are asked to if they feel any symptoms that match up to a series of pictograms on display.
Officials said this approach helps break a language barrier within the plant. While many messages are conveyed in four languages — English, Spanish, Chinese and Burmese — McKeeman said the pictures are a universal language.
While the majority of staff is busy with production, some staff has been tasked specifically with sanitizing common touch surfaces, including doors and tables.
Throughout the company, plant managers and other leaders have been taking steps and trying new ideas to help employees avoid direct contact. In some cases, these ideas are coming from corporate, while others have come from the ground level and shared between plants.
One of these ideas was a small, thin layer of plastic designed to shield and separate employees. For the initial phase, McKeeman said he was using opaque plastic that was easy to find but plans to transition to transparent material, if this plan is kept in place long term.
Other examples of preventative measures that have been implemented within the plant are a series of face shields that are given to employees that must work within six feet of each other. McKeeman said these piece of protective equipment are being made using Tyson's own resources and development team.
“Since March, we have been very aggressive with this,” Mark Gordon, Tyson vice president of case ready operations, said. “... We are trying from the very top to get some structure to this for the entire enterprise.”
Early on in the pandemic, McKeeman said there was a shortage on some supplies and personal protective equipment, but the company has been able to rely on commitments that were made prior to the outbreak.
“In think (it was difficult) in the beginning when we were caught off guard about what was coming at us, but through the support of the company we have been able to manage that pretty well.
“We have been able to meet our needs, but i won't say it wasn't tight at times — sanitizer, for example.”
In many cases, Tyson is taking an educational approach to keeping its workers safe. Throughout the facility, signs and posters regarding safe practices have been posted. In many cases, Gordon said these same practices can be used outside the workplace.
“Following the same guidelines we use to ensure people's safety is something that we have to continue to emphasize and communicate to our team members as they go out into the community,” he said.
In other cases, the plant has taken steps to encourage employees to take time off for health reasons if it is needed.
“I think our relaxed attendance policy promotes people staying home when they are not feeling well,” McKeeman said.
In cases where an employee has become sick, the company has adjusted its benefits for employees that are temporarily disabled. While traditionally, an employee would be eligible for 60 percent pay while on disability, this has been increase to 90 percent and waiting periods have been waived.
This week, the plant announced that it would be entering into a partnership with Matrix Medical Network to provide support for the facility. While officials said they are not doing testing inside the plant, Matrix and Tyson health services are able to help screen employees. However, Gordon said that Matrix could potentially be used to provide further testing in the future.
Other initiatives at the plant are aimed at encouraging the staff that shows up every day. Initially the company intended to distribute a $500 bonus to all employees who worked their shifts from March until July. However, this was increased to $1,000 and split into two different cycles, officials said.
Gordon said that employees who stay home sick are not ineligible for this bonus, and it is instead meant to dissuade against workers not showing up for other reasons.
“This doesn't have any impact on that,” Gordon said. “The only piece that would have an impact would be if someone is a no call, no show.”
In addition to the bonus, employees are being offered a $30 bonus for each day that they work throughout the month of May. McKeeman said this is assisting some families who have seen increased costs, from childcare or other expenses, in showing up for work each day.
“Really it is for the employees who are making the decision to come in and thanking them for their work,” Gordon said.
The changes and adaptations at Tyson come amid a growing number of meat packaging plants closing due to the number of reported COVID-19 cases at various sites. USA Today reported Wednesday that around the nation, meat packaging plants have reported 10,000 COVID-19 cases among workers.
Reportedly, there have been at least 45 deaths of workers from those plants.
Seven meat packaging plants have reportedly closed due to the number of infections at sites.
“Plants should resume operations as soon as they are able after implementing the CDC/OSHA guidance for the protection of workers,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue wrote in a letter to stakeholders.
“I exhort you to do this,” he wrote. “Further action under the Executive Order and the Defense Production Act is under consideration and will be taken if necessary.”
Michael Hutchins is the local government reporter for the Herald Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.