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News Literacy Week: Ben Hall details investigations into workplace safety during COVID

Posted at 10:35 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-27 23:35:08-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — NewsChannel 5 and our parent company E. W. Scripps are partnering with the News Literacy Project to bring you reports of how to spot misinformation.

As part of News Literacy Week, we are taking you behind-the-lens with NewsChannel 5 Investigatesto show you their painstaking fact-finding process, and their mission to find the truth even when they hit roadblocks.

The Investigates team starts each day with a meeting on Zoom.

It was in one of those meanings in the early part of the pandemic when Ben Hall first discussed growing concerns workers had about their safety.

"We were getting all kinds of calls and e-mails from workers worried they were still on the job and they weren't being protected," Ben said in a recent interview.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates made a request under the Public Records Act to obtain a list of complaints the state had received from workers.

Ben sorted through more than 150 complaints in just the first weeks of the pandemic and produced a report that showed many workers felt employers were either unprepared for the virus or unconcerned for their safety.

"Distinctions were being made about who was "essential" and therefore working in person. We found a lot of concern on construction sites, in health care facilities and in food processing plants," Ben said.

The problem was workers were scared they'd lose their jobs if they shared their concerns on camera.

"I kept getting calls from people saying, 'please do a story, but no, I don't want to show my face. I don't want to be identified,'" Ben remembered.

The Investigates team decided this was an appropriate time to allow workers to hide their identity.

"We like for people to show their faces during an interview - it's rare to hide someone's identity. But we could verify these people worked where they said they did, and it was obvious they could lose their jobs if they were identified," Ben said.

Ben first did a report on workers at the Tyson Chicken Plant in Shelbyville.

"Workers hid their faces under blankets and spoke to us because they could no longer hide their fear," Ben said in the report.

"Hearing from these workers even with their faces hidden and voices altered put more pressure on companies to take action," Ben said.

Tyson did respond, telling us they had implemented multiple safety measures - and even closed for a few days to clean and disinfect the plant where more than 1,000 employees worked.

But the worker concerns were not just at processing plants.

"We now know construction sites were major hot spots for the virus. They really never shut down and we had a lot of calls from concerned workers," Ben said.

Workers at one of Nashville's largest construction sites provided a recording of a contentious meeting - in which workers questioned supervisors about safety.

We confirmed the authenticity of the recording with the company, which provided a statement about how it was improving worker safety.

"At this point, we started getting a lot of information from unions that represented workers. And those representatives were willing to go on camera," Ben said.

Ben kept doing stories putting pressure on businesses to listen to those showing up at work every day.

"The virus was new. Many employers were doing the best they could. But workers needed a place to speak out and we are still here to report their stories and their concerns," Ben said.