Three members of staff at Cranswick, which employs 1,300 at its factory at Valley Park industrial estate in Wombwell, died after contracting the virus in May.
Two local MPs have issued a joint appeal to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) following what they feel is a lacklustre response, given that the authority - responsible for enforcing Covid-19 regulations - failed to carry out site visits before or after the deaths.
Wath woman Leander Lupton - whose partner Dave Baxter, 55, is one of those who lost their lives - said she believed his death wasn’t ‘adequately investigated’.
Dave, a worker at the factory for 11 years, had been ill for two weeks before his death on April 19.
Leander said he was a hard-working man who, when he was taken from their home in an ambulance, asked her to let those at the site know he ‘wouldn’t be going in’.
“It wasn’t adequately investigated,” she told the Chronicle.
“From what I’ve seen, the factory are doing their best but I think like a lot of people they didn’t take it seriously at first.
“They have put measures in place only since there have been deaths and hospital admissions.
“This isn’t directed at the Valley Park site, but the company and operating practices as a whole. It’s a widespread issue.
“Every factory will try to push the limits - that’s why the HSE is there, to back workers.
“It should be quite easy to use their powers to find if and when something had started to be done - there will be internal emails tracking ordering of PPE, and when measures were put into place.
“Production should’ve been stopped or slowed down, and they should’ve disciplined workers who didn’t abide by the rules.”
She said Dave had been working extra shifts to cover for colleagues who had been off work, while hiding messages and Google searches for symptoms to avoid worrying her and their son.
“If they’d shown the same concern, they might still have a loyal, hard-working employee, my son would still have a dad and the world would still have a kind, gentle and giving man,” she added.
At the time of Dave’s death, there had been nine confirmed cases of coronavirus - understood to have increased to 11 - at Cranswick.Â
Leander contacted John Healey, MP for Wentworth and Dearne, who has since questioned HSE’s chief executive on behalf of her and other families.
John said: “The email from Leander was one of the most distressing I have received in more than 20 years as an MP.
“Speaking to her, she is clearly heartbroken yet determined to seek answers for herself, Dave and their son.
“Problems were raised with the HSE, but their ‘investigation’ went no further than getting emails from the company. They just took their word for it.
“If they didn’t do a site visit when three people died, what would it take?”
Stephanie Peacock, MP for Barnsley East, added: “As more workplaces begin to open, questions need to be asked as to why this happened and whether the HSE has adequate funding to respond to the current crisis.”
New research shows funding for the HSE has been cut by more than half since 2010, leading to fewer inspectors and a vast drop in prosecutions and convictions.
A Cranswick spokesperson said it has implemented various social distancing and PPE measures at its Wombwell site, and had gone ‘above and beyond’ to support the workers’ families.
“Our thoughts are with the families of those who have passed away and all of those affected by COVID-19,” they said.Â
“The health and safety of all of our colleagues is our number one priority and we are doing everything we can to protect our workforce.Â
“Since the end of February, we have been implementing additional measures to protect both the physical and mental wellbeing of our people, including social distancing measures where practical, recommended PPE for all employees in line with PHE and WHO guidelines, additional cleaning and hygiene measures, as well as support such as counselling and occupational health services. All colleagues are also advised not to attend work if they have any symptoms.Â
“We have worked with the regulatory agencies, including local EHO representatives (Environmental Health Officers), the HSE and PHE (Public Health England) during these challenging times.
“Cranswick employees are designated key workers and are at the forefront of maintaining vital supplies of fresh food into the supermarkets. We are doing everything we can to protect them while they carry out this critical role.”