Overseas, meat and poultry industry workers in the US have accounted for about 170,000 infections. From those cases, 91 resulted in coronavirus-related deaths.
Other countries including France, Britain and Germany have also recorded outbreaks in abattoirs and meat processors.
Experts have highlighted the cold temperatures, tight spaces, hard surfaces and dry air as reasons for high workplace transmission, but there are other factors at play.
WHY ARE MEATWORKS A BIG RISK?
Fiona Stanaway, a clinical epidemiologist at Melbourne University, told Nine.com.au two reasons for the outbreaks at meat and poultry plants are the set-up and cold, dry air.
She said the layout of meat factories often involved staff working in close proximity and for long hours – often 10 or 12 hours per shift – which limits effective physical distancing.
“Having a group of people reasonably close together in a closed environment increases the risk of transmission,” Dr Stanaway said.
While the cool temperatures are maintained to limit other infections, they also increase coronavirus transmission.
“This sort of environment actually allows the droplets to sit together sort of surviving for longer than if the air was hot and humid,” Dr Stanaway said.
WHAT ABOUT HARD SURFACES?
Studies have been done on how long the virus survives on different surfaces. Traces of the virus were detected on plastic and steel – commonly found materials at abattoirs and meat works – up to three days after contamination. On cardboard it lasted for up to one day.
Dr Stanaway said while hard surfaces are a well-known source of transmission, there are other factors making cold workplaces vulnerable.
Dr Stanaway said a worker who picks up the virus within the community can spread it easily in environments such as meatworks because the workplace makes transmission easier.
She also said the large number of casual workers in the meat and poultry industry means people sick with COVID-19 often feel compelled to attend work for fear of losing out financially.
“Meatworks have a large casualised workforce and that can discourage people from taking time off work if they are sick,” Dr Stanaway said.
“This is an important factor … and it is why pandemic leave is good.”
WHAT ABOUT OTHER PREVENTATIVE MEASURES?
Dr Stanaway said limiting community transmission through measures implemented in the Victorian lockdowns and increased testing and contact tracing is important.
She said it is vital abattoir and meat plant workers who become sick get tested and stay away from work.
“Because that way, they can try and do the contact tracing and stop the outbreaks when they’re at an early stage,” she said.
In May, in a move aimed at halting transmissions, WorkSafe issued advice for Victorian meat and poultry processors based on guidelines from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The measures were not enforceable but included recommendations around temperature checks before shifts and social distancing.
But the advice did not include reducing the length of shift times from 10 or 12 hours to six or eight hours.