Safety on the line?

Poultry-processing rule would endanger workers, groups say

A U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to allow poultry-processing plants to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute is drawing criticism from a broad array of groups, which argue that faster line speeds will result in more worker injuries.

“Under current line speeds, conditions are already pretty risky for workers on the line,” said Catherine Singley, senior policy analyst for the Economic and Employment Policy Project at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group based in Washington. “We’re talking about severe carpal tunnel syndrome, eventually some permanent malformation of limbs, inability to even grasp a bottle of water. … It’s only logical that turning up the speed to 175 birds per minute is going to put some workers past the breaking point and really take a toll on their bodies.”

Singley authored a May 2012 report from NCLR that stated USDA’s rule would especially harm Latino workers, who make up 34 percent of the animal slaughtering and processing workforce.

USDA currently caps line speeds at 140 birds per minute. The proposed rule, published in January 2012, addresses a voluntary inspection system that USDA claims would improve food safety. Along with allowing faster line speeds, the system would reassign certain inspection duties to plant workers, reduce the number of federal inspectors to one per line, and shift worker focus from quality assurance (such as looking for physical defects) to food safety tasks (such as ensuring sanitation standards are met).

“As a public health agency, our core mission is to protect the food supply; this is the driving force behind our proposal to modernize poultry inspection,” a spokesperson for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said in an email to Safety+Health. “Despite our lack of authority over worker safety issues, we take these concerns very seriously and will continue to work with other agencies who have the regulatory authority and expertise on this issue.”

Changes in the rule have been in effect at 25 poultry plants since 1999 as part of a pilot program, and USDA tests show lower rates of Salmonella contamination at those facilities.

Human cost

Concerns about worker safety persist. In March, the Montgomery, AL-based Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice Inc. issued a report highlighting the dangers poultry workers face under current plant conditions. The report summarized a survey of 302 former and current Alabama poultry workers, more than 70 percent of whom reported “significant” injuries such as repetitive-motion injuries, cuts, chemical burns and respiratory problems. Yet 68 percent said they were not comfortable asking their employer to fix hazards, and 66 percent reported their co-workers were reluctant or afraid to report injuries.

A coalition of labor, public health, consumer and civil rights groups also urged USDA to withdraw the proposed rule. In a letter sent last year, the groups cited a Wake Forest University study that showed 59 percent of poultry workers had definite or possible carpal tunnel syndrome at line speeds of 70-91 birds per minute.

OSHA issued ergonomics guidelines for the poultry industry in 2004, but the recommendations are voluntary.

Tom Super, spokesperson for the Washington-based National Chicken Council, which represents the poultry industry, said companies have shared best practices to help improve worker safety. He expressed support for the proposed rule and cited research – conducted by NCC and other trade groups – that showed plants participating in USDA’s pilot program had similar injury and illness rates as plants operating at traditional line speeds, suggesting safety would not be compromised by the faster line speeds.

In 2011, the recordable injury rate for poultry processing was 5.8 per 100 full-time workers, compared to an overall rate of 5.6 in the food manufacturing industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, Singley believes the actual rate is higher. She said many poultry workers do not report injuries because they fear retaliation in the form of being fired, deported or demoted.

USDA estimates its rule would save taxpayers about $90 million over three years and reduce annual industry costs by more than $250 million. But in Singley’s opinion, one cost is missing: the human toll. She said USDA did not account for the personal and economic cost to workers left with gnarled fingers and pain that prevents them from working.

USDA has asked NIOSH to study the effects of line speeds on plant workers, but groups opposing the rule say the evaluation should occur before the rule moves forward. Singley also suggested USDA require plants that use the new inspection process to have a NIOSH representative in the plant.

At press time, USDA was in the process of preparing a final rule based on comments it had received.

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