December 30, 2010 The Pump Handle 1Comment

Liz and Celeste are on vacation, so we’re re-posting some content from our old site.

By Celeste Monforton, originally posted 11/3/09

“How can it be safe with this line so fast?” …. “Come to the plant and you will see.” …”when a visitor comes they slow it down and when they leave they speed it up.” “The line is too fast.” “People say their hands hurt a lot.” ….”Many people are injured and then they fire them.”

These are the voices of 455 meatpacking plant workers in Nebraska — not 100 years ago in Upton Sinclair’s time, but from surveys conducted in 2007 and 2008 by the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest. In their 94-page report, The Speed Kills You, the group set out to “assess the health and safety conditions in the Nebraska meatpacking industry from the perspective of the workers who live it every day.” According to the Nebraska Dept of Agriculture and the Nebraska Cattlemen Association, the State ranks first in red meat production, with red meat exports generating more than $1 Billion.

Following a series of news reports, Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns (now U.S. Senator) and the Legislature passed in 2001 the “Non-English Speaking Workers Protection Act,” reinforcing fundamental labor rights, such as the right to a safe workplace, adequate facilities (restrooms) and the ability to use them, complete and understandable information about terms of employment, etc. The Nebraska Appleseed report, however, found:

  • “Many workers knew they had rights (91%) but less than 30% thought those rights made a difference.”
  • 14% of workers reported some safety improvements over the past 10 years, but 52% reported there were ways in which their workplaces had become less safe.
  • 62% of workers said they had been injured in the past year. As predicted by the U.S. GAO 2006 study, this is far higher than the officially reported rate.”
  • “Speed of work—including line speed and an adequate number of staff on the line—was the biggest concern among workers surveyed and the most common issue cited in responses to open-ended questions. 73% of workers surveyed stated that the speed of the line had increased in the past year. At the same time, 94% said that the number of staff had decreased or stayed the same.”

Besides the obvious physical toll of the line speed, the report describes extremely degrading conditions for workers that also affect their overall health:

  • “Many written responses referenced supervisors screaming, employers’ apparent indifferences to safety concerns, and a failure to treat workers as human beings. ‘They scream at you, they humiliate you.’ ‘They scream at you a lot.’ …’I know of three people who urinated and pooped in their pants and afterwards they [supervisors] just laugh at you.'”

Can it really be true that in the U.S., individuals at work are not given the simple decency of being able to use a restroom when they need to?

In response to The Speed Kills You report, the American Meat Institute disputed the research, saying that Bureau of Labor Statistics data notes that the incidence of:

“reported injuries and illnesses for 2007 fell nearly 8 percent from previous years.”

Hmmm…..there’s something fishy here when the data submitted to BLS says injuries are going down substantially, yet 62% of the surveyed workers say they have been injured in the last year. Perhaps through OSHA’s NEP on recordkeeping special enforcement program on recordkeeping the investigators will identify the reason for the discrepancy between what the industry says is happening with injury rates, and what injured workers themselves report. Moreover, OSHA should also assess whether its six-year long ALLIANCE with the American Meat Institute (AMI) genuinely made any difference for the WORKERS employed in the industry. OSHA’s website hypes up speeches and meetings between senior officials from OSHA and AMI, but is short on evidence that these activities made a significant difference for workers in the plants. The Speed Kills You report suggests otherwise.

These Nebraska meatpacking workers indicated:

76% disagreed or strongly disagreed that their supervisor applied the company’ s safety policies all time. While 57% felt they could talk to their supervisor about work conditions or safety, 80% disagreed that their supervisor really cares about employee safety, and 53% reported that their supervisor did not speak their language.”

Has anyone seen a statement from Nebraska Senators Mike Johanns (R) or Ben Nelson (D) responding to the Appleseed report?

One thought on “Nebraska Appleseed in the Shoes of Upton Sinclair

  1. I think it’s time to use modern technology to solve an industrial-age problem: require factories to have publicly-accessible webcams showing every area where people come into contact with machinery or heavy objects, with automatic fines whenever a webcam is offline. (They should have enough spare cams never to have to pay the fine, and the fine should be hefty.) Cameras should have a minimum resolution, a maximum square footage covered (or “apparent distance”).

    It seems to me that this would better facilitate effective enforcement of existing rules, as less cost, than anything else would.

    There are some technical questions to deal with (e.g. what rules will prevent the factory from choking camera bandwidth in plausibly-deniable ways), but there are solutions as well; we just need to try this in the field and see what works.

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