OSHA Must Improve Safety for Meat and Poultry Workers

by Guest Blogger, 2/7/2005

Recent reports highlight the dangerous and sometimes deadly working conditions faced by workers in the meat industry and the urgent need for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take increased actions.

Workers in Danger

At the behest of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the Government Accountability Office has released a report on worker safety in the meat industry. The GAO report found that meat plant workers face "hazardous conditions involving loud noise, sharp tools, and dangerous machinery," while a report by Human Rights Watch found that "many workers face a real danger of losing a limb, or even their lives, in unsafe work conditions." The HRW report also found that "companies frequently deny workers' compensation to employees injured on the job, intimidate and fire workers who try to organize, and exploit workers' immigrant status in order to keep them quiet about abuses."

Meat and poultry workers endure some of the most dangerous working conditions of any occupation. Workers often face physically demanding, repetitive work, during which they stand for long periods of time on production lines that move very quickly while wielding knives or other cutting instruments. They frequently work in extreme temperatures from zero to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, in loud, wet, dark and slippery conditions with poor ventilation. According to HRW, "the increasing volume and speed of production coupled with close quarters, poor training and insufficient safeguards have made meat and poultry work so hazardous. On each shift, workers make up to 30,000 hard-cutting motions with sharp knives, causing massive repetitive motion injuries and frequent lacerations."

A 2001 survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that 14.7 out of 100 workers are injured on the job. GAO believes that this number is likely to be much higher due to underreporting by employers. GAO found injuries include cuts, burns, repetitive stress injuries, strains, injuries sustained from falls, fractures, amputations and sometimes death. The repetitive motions of meat and poultry work frequently lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Exposure to harsh chemicals, blood and fecal matter often produces illnesses, which are "exacerbated by poor ventilation."

OSHA Fails to Act

Despite the overwhelming evidence that worker protection in the meat and poultry industries must be strengthened, OSHA has largely failed to act. For instance, GAO believes that line speed may impact safety. And while OSHA agreed that slowing down the line may reduce injury, they have failed to collect data on the impact of line speed on worker safety and have made no attempts to assess the appropriate speed at which production lines should operate.

Nationwide Problem, But No Nationwide Solution

The GAO report suggests that some regional programs implemented by OSHA may have made an impact on worker safety, but OSHA has failed to apply these successes to the industry at large:

[Some] evidence suggests that OSHA's cooperative programs have had a positive impact on the safety and health of workers. For example, a program initiated by OSHA's Omaha Area Office, in which it partnered with several meatpacking plants in the state to share best safety practices, has, according to OSHA, improved worker safety and health in plants in Nebraska. The agency has not, however, implemented similar programs in other areas with large concentrations of meatpacking plants or extended the program to poultry plants.

OSHA has set voluntary ergonomics guidelines for the meat and poultry industry, which are unenforceable and a far cry from the real health and safety protections needed.

Injuries Underreported

Human Rights Watch reports that both "OSHA administrators and independent researchers have found a common corporate practice of underreporting injuries of all kinds. One recent estimate puts the undercount of nonfatal occupational injuries across industrial sectors as high as 69 percent." Underreporting is particularly prevalent for MSD injuries.

Despite this high level of underreporting, OSHA's methods for inspecting plants may not discover underreporting problems, according to the GAO. The current method for inspecting worksites mainly targets plants with high rates of illness and injury, while also inspecting a small number of worksites with low or average rates of illness and injury, but "the agency does not consider trends in worksites' injury and illness rates over time. As a result, OSHA may not detect dramatic decreases in these rates that could raise questions as to the accuracy of the figures."

OSHA's data is also incomplete, GAO found, because the agency does not include data about cleaning and sanitation workers who are independently contracted. "These workers are not classified by BLS as working in the meat and poultry industry, although they labor in the same plants and under working conditions that can be even more hazardous than those of production workers," the GAO concluded. For example, cleaning and sanitation workers in the meatpacking industry are frequently injured while cleaning dangerous machinery using severe chemicals.

Further, GAO found that OSHA's method for collecting data leaves tracking injury data at plants difficult. Because "OSHA does not assign a unique identifier to each plant for which data are collected," it is not possible to compare information about specific plants, and OSHA's success is therefore difficult to assess.