Food Manufacturing Injury prevention Musculoskeletal disorders

GAO report calls for stronger protections for meat and poultry workers

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chicken production line

Photo: andresr/iStockphoto

Washington – A Government Accountability Office report on injuries and illnesses in the meat and poultry industry questions “whether the federal government is doing all it can to collect the data it needs to support worker protection and workplace safety.”

Meat and poultry work requires “forceful exertions, awkward postures and repetitive motions for many job tasks, which can lead to injuries,” GAO states in the report, released May 25. In addition to the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, meat and poultry workers face exposure to chemicals and pathogens, as well as potential injuries caused by tools and machines. GAO notes that although injury and illness rates in the meat and poultry industry have declined, those rates remain higher than rates in the overall manufacturing sector.

The report points to several data-collection challenges the Department of Labor faces. They include potential underreporting of injuries and illnesses by workers and employers, DOL’s practice of collecting detailed data only for injuries and illnesses that result in lost workdays, and incomplete data stemming from some meat and poultry workers being classified as contract workers.

GAO issued three recommendations, as worded in the report:

  • To strengthen DOL’s efforts to ensure employers protect the safety and health of workers at meat and poultry plants, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, working together with the Commissioner of Labor Statistics as appropriate, to develop and implement a cost-effective method for gathering more complete data on musculoskeletal disorders.
  • To develop a better understanding of meat and poultry sanitation workers’ injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health and the Commissioner of Labor Statistics to study how they could regularly gather data on injury and illness rates among sanitation workers in the meat and poultry industry.
  • To develop a better understanding of meat and poultry sanitation workers’ injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have NIOSH conduct a study of the injuries and illnesses these workers experience, including their causes and how they are reported. Given the challenges to gaining access to this population, NIOSH may want to coordinate with OSHA to develop ways to initiate this study.

“All workers should have access to a safe and healthy workplace and be able to earn a living without fearing for their safety,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a press release following the publication of the report. “This report makes clear that workers in the meat and poultry industry continue to face some of the highest rates of workplace injury. I will continue to push to make sure every worker, in every industry, has the safe work environment they deserve.”

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