February 27, 2014 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 2Comment

The billion-dollar poultry industry chews up its workers and spits them out like a chaw of tobacco. One of those workers is in Washington, DC this week to make a plea to the Obama Administration. For 17 years, Salvadora Roman, 59 worked on the de-boning line at a Wayne Farms poultry processing plant in Alabama. The production line ran at an incessant pace that forced her (and her co-workers) to make tens of thousands of repetitive motions on each and every work shift. Her hands and wrists eventually became so swollen and painful that she requested to be moved to a less hand-intensive task. Her employer refused. Her symptoms worsened. After missing work to seek medical attention, she was fired. That was two years ago. Her crippling pain and mangled hands have not recovered.

Ms. Roman, along with several other poultry workers from Arkansas, Mississippi and North Carolina, are in the nation’s Capital to plead with policy makers to improve their working conditions. They’ve requested meetings with Obama Administration officials. Some, but not all, of their requests have been granted. With support of the National Council of La Raza, Nebraska Appleseed, Oxfam American, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Food & Water Watch, they are making a last-ditch effort to ask the Obama Administration to abandon its rule to change the poultry inspection process. The new regulation is expected to be released in just a few weeks.

As we’ve reported here previously, the rule will largely privatize poultry inspection, lead to the elimination of 800 inspectors, and allow producers to increase line speed to 175 birds per minute (which will further cripple poultry workers.) It will do little to improve food safety, and could make matters worse.  Piling onto the insult to workers and consumers, the changes endorsed by the Obama Administration are estimated to enhance the industry’s annual revenue by $250 million—just what Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Foster Farms, George’s, and other poultry producers want.

The Administration continues to insist the rule will not adversely affect the health of poultry workers. They chose to ignore the substantial body of evidence that shows increasing exposure to intensive repetitive motion tasks leads to more musculoskeletal injuries. The Administration’s own National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued an evaluation last year showing this exact relationship. The NIOSH researchers assessed the work tasks, occupational history and the results of nerve conduction tests of 318 poultry workers at a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in South Carolina. Ninety-four percent of the workers were African-American and 70 percent were female.

NIOSH table12
Musculoskeletal disorders and traumatic injuries among employees at a poultry processing plant, interim report. CDC, NIOSH, HHE No. 2012-0125, April 2013.

Based on each worker’s exposure to repetitive hand activity and force, they were classified into low, medium and high exposure groups. There was a dose-response relationship between exposure and prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome.

At a press conference today, Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) also called on the USDA to withdraw the rule.  He said:

“Increasing line speed not only increases the risk of injury to line workers, but also compromises the health of American consumers. ..the USDA is unnecessarily endangering the lives of millions of Americans. I urge the Administration to move swiftly and stop the USDA from allowing increased line speeds in poultry plants.”

Mr. Thompson was joined by Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (statement here), and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). Ms. Jackson-Lee said, “It is a shame that we are dealing with this as we celebrate the 5oth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We are demanding that the White House stop the rule.”

Poultry industry workers are largely female, and African-American or Latino.   Ms. Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, reports that two in five of the workers are Latino.  Commenting on the USDA’s rule, Murguía said, “Instead of advancing a proposal that would make already dangerous workplaces even more hazardous, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez must work together to improve worker safety in the poultry industry.”

Food safety and worker safety experts have been warning the Administration of the serious harm that will result if the USDA’s new poultry slaughter inspection system is adopted.  Let’s hope the Obama White House decides to treat poultry workers better than the  companies that employ them.

[More here on the poultry workers’ appeal to policymakers in Washington, DC.]

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