Tag Archives: USDA

SPLC urges federal agencies to protect poultry, meatpacking plant workers

Cross-posted from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The SPLC and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a formal petition today urging the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to better protect workers in poultry and meatpacking plants, where federal policies allow workers to operate in hazardous conditions that often leave them with disabling injuries, illnesses and pain.

The groups petitioned OSHA to issue new work speed standards to protect the workers responsible for making the United States the largest producer of poultry and beef in the world. OSHA has general health and safety rules for workplaces but does not regulate processing line speeds that often operate at a punishing pace.

The only federal agency regulating line speed is the USDA, which is solely focused on food safety and maximizing production for the industries. Though there is ample evidence that work speed is a primary contributor to injuries, the USDA has proposed increasing poultry processing line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175. The groups’ petition also calls on the USDA to reconsider its proposed rule change.

“Meatpacking and poultry processing line jobs are among the most notoriously dangerous jobs in the United States,” the group’s petition states. It notes that “OSHA’s current failure to regulate poultry and meat processing plant work speed puts plant workers at significant risk of permanently disabling cumulative trauma disorders,” such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which are caused by the extraordinary number of repetitive motions these workers perform.

The coalition includes the SPLC, Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Coalition of Poultry Workers, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Farmworker Advocacy Network, Heartland Workers Center, Interfaith Worker Justice, Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, North Carolina Justice Center, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center, Refugee Women’s Network, Student Action with Farmworkers and Western North Carolina Workers’ Center.

Meat and poultry workers often make 20,000 cuts a day to the meat and poultry on the line. Many fear losing their jobs if they report injuries or ask for safer working conditions. This silence enables companies to hide true injury rates that are far higher than what is publicly reported.

The groups urge OSHA to implement the following changes to protect workers:

  • Establish a standard that limits work speeds.
  • Create standards that address the specific injuries caused by keeping up with the line speeds.
  • Ensure that existing safety guidelines are enforceable.

The groups also ask USDA to engage in thorough interagency consultation about worker safety before implementing its proposed poultry rule changes that would increase work speeds in poultry processing.

These hazards have been documented by the SPLC in its 2013 report Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers. Nebraska Appleseed documented similar dangers in the meatpacking industry in its 2009 report The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers.

Substantial medical and epidemiological research has concluded that rate of repetition is a major factor in disabling injuries. The groups’ findings have been echoed in worker interviews conducted by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. In June, the groups also called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to address human rights violations in U.S. poultry and meatpacking plants.

OMB Watch — Letting the Fox Guard the Henhouse – Literally

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) made the front page of The New York Times this week for its proposal to change the way chickens and other poultry are inspected in processing plants before they are sent to supermarkets and butcher shops all across the country. In January, the agency published a controversial new proposal that would shift responsibility for inspections away from agency inspectors and allow employees of the slaughtering plants to judge their own handiwork. We’re not the only ones who think asking chicken producers to police themselves might be a bad idea.

Currently, federal inspectors pull chickens and other poultry that look contaminated or diseased from the production line to ensure they don’t enter the food chain. If this responsibility shifts to employees in a plant, the employees would face pressure to get as many chickens and turkeys as possible through production and shipped out to the public. We already have regular salmonella outbreaks. This seems like a recipe for more.

Industry has been clamoring for this type of self-regulation for quite some time, and Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), cited this proposed change as an example of a rule that would produce benefits and save industry lots of money. So what are the “benefits”?

All of the benefits of this proposal come from saving the poultry industry and FSIS money. Under the new system, there will be fewer visual inspections of poultry, so FSIS will employ fewer inspectors. FSIS estimates that it will save between $85 million and $95 million over the next three years, and the poultry companies estimate that they will save about $250 million. This is because when inspectors aren’t examining each poultry carcass, the poultry processors can speed up the production line.

Read the full story here.