COLUMBUS, Ohio—A study done at Ohio meat-processing plants found very few employees were wearing required face masks.
Among the 37 workers interviewed at five meat-processing plants across the state, only nine wore face masks when surveyed at their job sites, according to the study by researchers with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
“What we found is they’re not seeing other people wearing masks, and they’re not seeing the advantage of wearing them,” said Joy Rumble, an assistant professor in CFAES and one of the lead researchers of the study.
The point of the study, done in June and July, was to determine why many meat-processing facility workers don’t wear masks, so that new measures can be put in place to encourage them to do so.
Face masks, along with other personal protective equipment such as hairnets, safety glasses, gloves, and frocks are commonly used at meat-processing plants. However, the rules differ from plant to plant.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, face masks have taken on additional importance in keeping workers from becoming infected or infecting others with the coronavirus.
Wearing a mask in a meat-processing plant comes with challenges beyond the typical hassles people have when wearing masks. The facility has humid and hot areas, so the masks can make a person even hotter, and when masks get wet, they can make it difficult to breathe.
But the inconveniences of wearing the masks were not the main deterrent keeping people from slipping them on.
“We had thought that’s what they were going to say, that they’re not wearing masks because they’re going from cold to hot environments and they already wear safety glasses and hairnets and gloves, and now they have to wear masks. But it was really more, ‘People can’t tell me what to do,’” Rumble said.
Last spring, the United States’ major meat-processing plants developed into COVID-19 hotspots at the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, some of the country’s largest meat processors either slowed their operations or shut down. They didn’t have enough staff to work in them. Grocery meat counters were left with little to offer shoppers until the processors could open back up.
Since then, all meat processors have been urged to take additional precautions so that workers don’t catch or spread COVID-19.
The employees interviewed in this study who were wearing masks did so because they had an immediate family member with a compromised immune system, said Lyda Garcia, an assistant professor of meat science at CFAES, and another lead researcher of the study.
“Even some wearing face masks said they weren’t sure whether COVID-19 was a significant threat, but for the sake of their family member, they didn’t want to risk it,” Garcia said.
As part of the study, researchers next want to test whether a newly created, water-repellant mask will be more comfortable and lead to more workers wearing it. Judit Puskas, a CFAES Distinguished Professor of polymer science, has a provisional patent application pending for the mask she created. She’s seeking a company to manufacture it.
Once large amounts of the rubbery, flexible masks are made, they will be distributed in the same five Ohio meat-processing facilities where the surveys were done. Then researchers will return to see how many workers are wearing the new masks.
“The reality is, we may not get everybody to wear them,” Garcia said. “But if we could go up at least to 50%, that’s success to me. It’s kind of like seat belts. Not everyone wears a seat belt, but a lot of us do.”