A coalition of civil rights groups filed a formal petition today urging the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to better protect workers in poultry and meatpacking plants where federal policies allow workers to operate in hazardous conditions that often leave them with disabling injuries, illnesses and pain.
The groups petitioned OSHA to issue new work speed standards to better protect these workers responsible for making the United States the largest producer of poultry and beef in the world. OSHA has general health and safety rules for workplaces, but these rules do not regulate processing line speeds that often operate at a punishing pace.
The only federal agency regulating line speed is the USDA, which is solely focused on food safety and maximizing production for the industries. Though there is ample evidence that work speed is a primary contributor to injuries, the USDA has proposed increasing poultry processing line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175. The groups' petition also calls on the USDA to reconsider its proposed rule change.
"Meatpacking and poultry processing line jobs are among the most notoriously dangerous jobs in the United States," the group's petition states. It notes that "OSHA's current failure to regulate poultry and meat processing plant work speed puts plant workers at significant risk of permanently disabling cumulative trauma disorders," such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which are caused by the extraordinary number of repetitive motions these workers perform.
The coalition includes the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Coalition of Poultry Workers, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Farmworker Advocacy Network, Heartland Workers Center, Interfaith Worker Justice, Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, North Carolina Justice Center, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center, Refugee Women's Network, Student Action with Farmworkers and Western North Carolina Workers' Center.
According to the petition, current OSHA standards don't address the work speed injuries that are most common in poultry and meatpacking plants. It also describes how these workers endure significant injuries and illnesses as they are forced to keep up with the punishing speed of processing lines – even having to urinate and defecate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of the supervisor by leaving the line.
Meat and poultry workers often make 20,000 cuts a day to the meat and poultry on the line, work speeds which lead to debilitating repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Others endure knife cuts and respiratory illnesses.
Many of these workers are fearful of losing their jobs if they report injuries or ask for safer working conditions. This silence enables companies to hide true injury rates that are far higher than what is publicly reported.
The groups urge OSHA to implement the following changes to protect workers:
Establish a standard that limits work speeds.
Create standards that address the specific injuries caused by keeping up with the line speeds.
Ensure that existing safety guidelines are enforceable.
The groups also ask USDA to engage in thorough interagency consultation about worker safety before implementing its proposed poultry rule changes that would increase work speeds in poultry processing.
These hazards have been documented by the SPLC in its 2013 report Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama's Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers. Nebraska Appleseed documented similar dangers in the meatpacking industry in its 2009 report The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska's Meatpacking Workers. Substantial medical and epidemiological research has concluded that rate of repetition is a major factor in disabling injuries. The groups' findings have been echoed in worker interviews conducted by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. In June, the groups also called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to address human rights violations in U.S. poultry and meatpacking plants.