May 5, 2020
Dear Governor Cooper,
As North Carolinians, Tuesdays with Tillis have been gathering weekly for three years outside Senator Thom Tillis’ Raleigh office to bring attention to the unmet needs of the people of North Carolina. We currently meet online each week to continue our work on behalf of people who are disproportionately affected by the global pandemic. Right now, we are concerned about the safety of those who work in our meat and poultry processing plants.
When workers who toil in environments that involve close person-to-person contact are classified as essential (often a euphemism for expendable), the company that employs them must ensure their safety. Meat and poultry processing plants provide a number of conditions that promote the spread of communicable diseases, especially the coronavirus: people stand shoulder to shoulder with no barrier between them; while they wear gloves, they do not wear masks or face shields; the pace of work is unrelenting with pressure to work faster making safety lapses more likely.
To secure our meat supply, we must make worker safety paramount. Fewer workers should be on the line at one time, allowing 6 feet of space between them; plexiglass barriers should be erected between workstations; workers should be provided with gloves, gowns, and high quality face masks that filter all inhaled air, like the KN-95 masks issued to waste disposal and sewer workers; workers should be provided with full face shields, since the lining of the eye also is a portal for entry of the virus. Hand washing stations and sanitizer must be readily available. In addition, the plants need to conduct diagnostic testing to know who is infectious and who is not, since many people carrying the coronavirus are asymptomatic. Those who test positive must be isolated from other workers and from their families until they no longer test positive. Attention needs to be paid as well to break rooms and safe transportation, as these environments are also sites of virus transmission and distance from each other should be maintained. All the costs of these measures must be borne by the companies. Workers should not endure financial hardship in addition to the risks that their jobs entail.
President Trump has now issued an executive order for the meat and poultry plants to re-open. At the same time the states are enjoined from stopping the plants from opening and thus cannot require the plants to insure worker safety first. This is outrageous. CDC guidelines for worker safety are provided, but are not required.
Tuesdays with Tillis demands that the state of North Carolina lead the nation by challenging this executive order. We ask you to insist that worker health and safety come before profit and that the lives of our workers be our state’s top priority.
Thank you for the work that you do on behalf of all North Carolinians.
Doyle G. Graham, MD, PhD
Dean Emeritus of Medical Education
Duke University School of Medicine
National University of Singapore
Tuesdays with Tillis