Federal agencies Food Manufacturing

GAO calls for better interagency teamwork to improve safety for meat and poultry workers

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Washington — Better outreach, collaboration and information sharing among federal agencies is needed to improve worker safety in the meat and poultry slaughter and processing industries, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a recently released report.

For the report, GAO analyzed OSHA’s efforts to keep meat and poultry industry workers safe, how OSHA and the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service have collaborated on worker safety, and how OSHA and FSIS have partnered to protect workers from chemical hazards.

GAO gathered information through analysis of OSHA inspection data from 2005 to 2016, as well as interviews with OSHA staff at the agency’s headquarters and at six field offices, officials of four other federal agencies, worker advocates, and industry representatives. GAO also visited four plants and interviewed workers at six sites in five states.

According to OSHA, annual inspections of meat and poultry processing plants increased to 244 in 2016 from 177 in 2005 because of new enforcement programs and new reporting requirements that prompted additional inspections. GAO found that OSHA faces challenges with its data-collection efforts because workers can be reluctant to report violations and injuries for fear of retribution. This reluctance makes it difficult to address hazards and concerns such as limited bathroom access.

GAO also examined how OSHA’s relationship with FSIS has addressed worker safety. The two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding in 1994 that called for referrals to OSHA by FSIS officials, information sharing and training of FSIS officials.

Challenges to this collaboration, GAO determined, include FSIS inspectors being hesitant to report hazards to OSHA for fear of sparking an OSHA inspection of FSIS. Also hampering progress is a lack of self-evaluation from the two agencies on their implementation of the memo’s plans.

Finally, GAO found that not all chemicals used at plants are federally inspected for risks they may pose to workers. It also found that FSIS does not have a way to share the information it has gathered on how it protects its inspectors from new chemicals.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • OSHA should encourage worker reporting by conducting interviews offsite.
  • OSHA should gather more information from workers, such as asking about bathroom breaks.
  • OSHA should update its guidance to employers on how to manage their health units.
  • OSHA should set timeframes for evaluations with FSIS of the agencies’ 1994 memorandum of understanding, and together the agencies should assess progress of the collaboration and make changes to improve the coordination.
  • FSIS should set up a process to regularly share worker safety information developed during analysis of new chemicals with FSIS inspectors, OSHA, NIOSH and plant management.

The North American Meat Institute said it is highly motivated to protect its workers, while the United Food and Commercial Workers Union used the report to affirm its opposition to calls for faster line speeds

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