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Advocacy group claims USDA used flawed data to advance line-speed proposal for pork-processing plants

Swine modernization
Photo: United States Department of Agriculture

Washington — The U.S. Department of Agriculture used flawed worker injury data to advance its controversial proposal to remove maximum line speeds in pork-processing plants, according to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group.

In a Dec. 5 press release, NELP highlights a review by two experts from Texas State University showing that USDA compared injury rates from traditional plants with five plants that were part of a 1990s pilot program that allowed lines to run faster.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said its analysis showed lower mean injury rates at the plants in the program. However, Texas State University faculty members Celeste Monforton, a lecturer in the department of health and human performance, and Phillip W. Vaughan, a research scientist in methodology, measurement and statistical analytics, disagree with USDA’s conclusion in comparing traditional plants with those in the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points Inspection Models Project – as known as HIMP.

“(Data limitations) make it impossible … to draw any statistically valid conclusion about worker injury rate differences,” the researchers said in their report.

Monforton and Vaughan note that FSIS used annual injury rate statistics from OSHA’s Data Initiative, which collected data from about 80,000 of 7.5 million establishments between 1996 and 2011.

“The dataset used by FSIS had consecutive years of data for only eight of the 24 traditional (pork-processing) plants,” the researchers said. “Moreover, none of the traditional plants had data available for the full nine-year period (2002 through 2010)” used by FSIS in its analysis.

From 2002 to 2010, only 56 of the nation’s 612 processing plants were required to submit their annual injury rate to OSHA, the researchers said. Some plants were required to submit data for only one year, while others had to do so for multiple years.

FSIS selected five HIMP plants as a comparison – two of which did not provide worker injury data in consecutive years.

“For each of the five HIMP plants, the agency simply averaged injury rates across available years,” the researchers said. “For the traditional plants, FSIS performed the same calculation.” FSIS then compared the injury rates of the two types of plants to conclude that HIMP plants had fewer worker injuries.

Monforton and Vaughan also point out that the five HIMP plants were self-nominated, saying this likely means the facilities differ from traditional plants in a number of ways, such as age, maintenance, OSHA inspection experience and worker training, among others.

“FSIS’s analysis inappropriately assumes that the plants are comparable in every way except for their HIMP status,” they said.

In the Dec. 5 press release, Debbie Berkowitz, NELP program director for worker safety and health, called USDA’s analysis “a joke.”

“USDA is using a faulty data analysis … to justify a proposal that will clearly endanger workers,” Berkowitz said. “Before any new proposal is finalized, USDA must conduct a new analysis of the impact of line speed increases on worker safety. The agency should withdraw the current proposal until that is complete.”

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