Our regular readers are well aware of the hazards faced by workers in the US poultry industry (as well as related industries processing other meats), and of the USDA’s misguided poultry-inspection proposal that would allow for increased line speeds in US poultry plants. Workers, public-health experts, and other advocates have been urging US agencies to address the conditions that leave meat-processing workers with appallingly high rates of musculoskeletal disorders and other health problems, and have found the response disappointing. So, three organizations — the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, Nebraska Appleseed, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — appealed to an international body. On Tuesday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (part of the Organization of American States) held a hearing on the “Human Rights Situation of Workers in the Meatpacking and Poultry Industry in the United States.”
Tom Fritzsche of the Southern Poverty Law Center opened the petitioners’ testimony, stating, “The meat and poultry processing industries violate the fundamental human rights of their workers, who come from all over the hemisphere, by systematically exploiting the lack of work speed safety regulations in the United States. The U.S. in turn negligently permits these industries to inflict disabling harm on thousands of their employees.” He described some of the crippling injuries these workers experience, as well as indignities like being denied reasonable bathroom use, which forces workers to urinate and defecate in their clothes.
Fritzsche noted that the petitioners and other human-rights groups have asked USDA to abandon its proposed poultry regulation, and that a coalition of organizations submitted a rulemaking peition asking OSHA to establish a clear, enforceable work speed standard. Fritzsche closed with recommendations, including, “The Commission should call upon the United States government to implement work speed safety standards that reduce line speeds and permit meatpacking and poultry processing workers to perform their duties in a safe environment that does not expose them to permanently disabling, life-changing injuries. It should also call upon the U.S. government to stop the USDA’s proposed rule, which will further increase already dangerous line speeds in poultry processing.”
Omaid Zabih of Nebraska Appleseed also testified about the industry-wide conditions that endanger the lives and health of poultry workers, referencing reports their organization and others have published on meat and poultry workers’ experiences (e.g., The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers and Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers) as well as research findings. I gave a brief statement about the decades’ worth of findings in the peer-reviewed literature and government research about health problems among workers in these industries. But the stars of the hearings were three workers and the mother of a worker killed on the job, who shared firsthand stories of the awful toll of unsafe working conditions in meat and poultry-processing plants.
“What I wanted … was to be treated like a human being”
Teresa Martinez packed 40-50 hams per minute, for eight hours a day, for more than four years at a Nebraska meatpacking plant. When she first reported shoulder pain, her employer gave her pills and ice; then, they cut her hours. “What I wanted … was to be treated like a human being and not some replaceable machine,” Martinez told the commission, but supervisors kept hounding the workers to speed up production. Eventually, the pain was so bad that she couldn’t lift her baby, or even raise her arm. After three years at the plant, she needed surgery — but it didn’t stop the pain. Two years later, she has stopped working at the plant, but intense pain still wakes her at night. “The doctors say the pain his permanent,” she told the Commission. “I have dreams and a family. The speed of the line broke my dream.”
Gwen Clements worked at a Kentucky poultry processing plant, layer-packing 47 chicken legs per minute. Performing those same motions day after day eventually left her with hand pain, which worsened despite medications, creams, and wrist splints from the company nurse. A neurologoist diagnosed early-stage carpal tunnel syndrome, but the company disputed it. The nurse told Clements’ supervisor to slow down the line speed and then gradually increase it — but the supervisor didn’t follow the nurse’s instructions. “I never once saw the supervisors slow down the line for anyone,” Clements explained, not even for new hires who are supposed to start working at slower speeds. “We are under too much pressure to meet the daily orders. The company does not follow its own policies.” After more than a year on the job, Clements was fired. “I believe I was fired for complaining to the company about my work-related health problems,” she told the Commission. “Unfortunately, my story is not unique. Many of my co-workers also suffered from the dangerously fast work speeds. And many were fired when their injuries got worse.”
Juan Martinez spent more than eight years trimming ribs in Nebraska meatpacking plants. After making the same cutting motions thousands of times every shift, his fingers locked; after lifting heavy buckets of meat and fat, he injured three discs in his back. His doctor set work restrictions, and the company laid him off soon thereafter. “When you’re injured, the company no longer wants you,” Martinez explained. “My friends who reported their own accidents have lost their jobs. Others hid their injuries because they feared being fired.” Juan has undergone two surgeries on his hands and two on his back, as well as many hours of therapy, but the pain doesn’t stop. He has lost strength in his hands and legs, as well as his ability to grip. “Imagine being disabled at the age of 41,” he told the Commission. “I’ve come to learn that when you’re injured on the job at the packing plants, it becomes nearly impossible to find a job. We need policies that keep the speed of the work safe. I don’t want more people to become disabled just because they’re trying to do their job.”
Lee Pearl Duff spoke about the death of her son Ronnie Duff, Sr., who worked at a Mississippi chicken processing plant until September 9, 2012, when he was pulled into an unguarded screw auger with no accessible emergency-shutoff equipment. “His left side was completely gone, the leg from the hip and the right side was completely crushed,” she told the Commission. “If they could have shut the machine off, I might have a son without any legs, but since they couldn’t shut it off, I don’t have a son.” An OSHA investigation found 43 health and safety violations at the plant, 37 of them serious. “He was a good man, just trying to take care of his family and build a life. He was only 39 years old, and he leaves behind three children of his own. Now his life is gone because someone didn’t consider him to be even as important as a bird.”
After sharing her son’s awful story, Lee Pearl Duff voiced a sentiment that we hear over and over again from family members speaking about their loved ones who were killed on the job:
No family should suffer the anguish that is now in my heart over the preventable loss of my son. … Since my son’s tragic death, it has been my number one goal to do everything within my power to prevent this devastating and senseless loss from happening to another family. In the moment that my son was caught up in this machine, he knew in an instant that he was going to die and he endured a torturous death. The mental picture of my son’s last moments on this earth will haunt me until I go to my own grave.
The condition in these plants for years has caused injuries to thousands of workers. So I come to you with a heavy heart asking that you consider my request along with the others that are being made on behalf of thousands of workers and have been injured in the poultry industry.
Responses from federal agencies and the Commission
After the petitioners spoke to the Commission about the human-rights abuses occurring the US meat and poultry industries, representatives from US government agencies also had a chance to testify. Andrew Levinson, Deputy Director of the Directorate of Standards and Guidance at OSHA, echoed several of the petitioners’ points about the high injury and illness rates among meat and poultry workers, and noted that several factors — repetition, force, posture, and temperature — can affect the development of musculoskeletal disorders. He explained that OSHA has limited enforcement resources and that the agency’s rulemaking process takes many years to complete. Levinson mentioned several steps OSHA is taking to address worker health and safety in these industries, including a National Emphasis Program on amputations, partnerships with the consulates of several Latin American countries whose citizens work in meat and poultry processing, and outreach to vulnerable workers (in Spanish as well as English) that stresses the confidentiality of complaints filed with OSHA.
Rachel Edelstein, Assistant Administrator of the Office of Policy and Program Development at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS), spoke about the need to modernize poultry inspections to better address the bacteria responsible for foodborne illnesses. (It’s worth noting that many food inspectors and food-safety advocates warn that the proposed system will not only be harmful to workers, but will likely fail to improve food safety.) Edelstein testified that FSIS does not have authority or expertise on worker safety, but will continue to collaborate with OSHA. This was a disappointingly vague response, but it wasn’t surprising.
Commissioners’ questions following the testimony were focused mainly on better understanding the problem, including how meat and poultry processing conditions affect immigrants and how unions are, or could be, involved. Commissioner Emilio Álvarez Icaza commented that it appears US agencies are not doing enough to address the problem. Commissioner Rose-Marie Antoine, who chaired the hearing, told the audience that the Commission will continue to monitor the situation.
It remains to be seen whether USDA will issue a final version of its “modernization” rule, which will shift food-inspection responsibility from federal inspectors to poultry companies and allow processing plants to run their lines at speeds beyond the worker-damaging pace allowed today. With their appearance before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, poultry workers and advocates continue to show why we need to be just as concerned about working conditions as we are about food safety.