An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the U.S. meatpacking and poultry industry validates long-standing concerns raised by workers. GAO investigators said workers expressed fear of being punished or losing their jobs if they report safety or health problems; reported being denied access to the bathroom; and experienced problems receiving proper medical care for work-related injuries.
GAO’s investigation included interviews with individuals in Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia who work in the industry or are government officials. More than 480,000 workers in the U.S are employed in the meat and poultry slaughtering industry. Many are minorities, immigrants, and refugees, and a significant number are women. The industry is dominated by several firms, including Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill Meat Solutions, Smithfield Foods, and Hormel.
Workers and their allies say GAO’s report could not come at a better time. The Trump Administration is considering two proposals that would exempt poultry and meat processors from current regulations that limit production line speeds. One stems from a petition submitted to USDA in September from the National Chicken Council. The trade group wants the Food Safety Inspection Service to grant waivers to poultry plants that want to run processing line speeds in excess of 140 birds per minute.
The other is a draft proposed rule to “modernize” swine slaughter by relinquishing key inspection responsibilities from USDA inspectors to company employees. In exchange, pork processing companies can increase slaughtering line speeds to 1,300 hogs per hour.
“A startling number of meatpacking and poultry workers develop permanent and crippling repetitive-motion injuries because of the relentless speed of the production lines,” said Omaid Zabih, Staff Attorney for Nebraska Appleseed’s Immigrants & Communities Program. Zabih added:
“The Administration must abandon its reckless plan to increase line speeds and privatize swine inspections, and should instead work to lower line speeds to a safe level.”
In 2009, Nebraska Appleseed issued a report entitled “The Speed Kills You” which surveyed 455 Nebraska meatpacking workers who pointed to the dangerous speed of the processing line as the main cause of injuries. As follow up surveys have revealed, meat and poultry workers make 15,000 to 20,000 motions per shift on the low end, and up to 40,000 to 100,000 or more motions per shift on the high end.
The GAO investigation identified other worker safety problems in the meat and poultry slaughtering industry, including the use of chemical agents to reduce salmonella and other pathogens. The anti-microbial agents are considered safe for consumers to eat, but the chemicals are sprayed widely in the plants and workers experience respiratory symptoms from the airborne exposure. GAO said there are serious information gaps on how the chemicals affect workers health and a lack of coordination among relevant agencies including USDA, NIOSH, and OSHA.
Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) noted another important part of GAO’s report:
“…during 2016, 15 meat and poultry plants –all in the southeast—have refused OSHA access to expand complaint inspections to cover additional recognized hazards; this development has impaired OSHA’s ability to protect workers, and should compel the Department of Labor to vigorously defend its statutory authority to enter plants ‘without delay’.”
Six of the denials took place in Georgia, five in Alabama, and two each in Florida and Mississippi. The companies’ move to demand warrants occurred after OSHA initially commenced an inspection in response to a complaint and then moved to expand the scope of the inspection based on evidence of additional health or safety problems. The poultry industry’s strategy to obstruct OSHA inspections began following a serious injury incident at Mar-Jac poultry in Gainesville, GA.
Data released last month by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that beef and pork slaughtering has the highest incidence rate of occupational illnesses than any other industry. Poultry processing was not far behind (ranked 12th) with an illness rate that is worse than the rates for firefighting and coal mining. (Illness cases include musculoskeletal disorders, skin diseases, and respiratory illnesses.) The illness incidence rate in animal slaughtering (excluding poultry) is 251.4 cases per 10,000 workers and in poultry processing the rate is 88.3. This compares to the rate of 14.1 per 10,000 for all private sector industries.
As I’ve written before, the data from BLS’s Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII) is just the tip of the iceberg. The SOII relies on employers to self report their injury data which understates the magnitude of work-related injuries. It’s a problem examined by numerous public health researchers (e.g., here, here, here) and acknowledged by both BLS and OSHA.
A delegation of poultry and meatpacking workers, along with faith and labor allies are holding a press event and demonstration on December 12 in front of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The groups include the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center, the Labor Rights Center (Bryan, TX), Western North Carolina Worker Center, and the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union.