OSHA Urged to Pick up Its Pen for Poultry Workers

by Matt Shudtz

December 17, 2014

Today, Nebraska Appleseed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and several allied organizations sent a letter to OSHA requesting a response to their petition for a rulemaking on work speed in poultry and meatpacking plants. The groups originally submitted the petition to OSHA over a year ago, and it’s been radio silence ever since. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of workers, most low-income and socially vulnerable, continue to work in conditions that lead to crippling musculoskeletal disorders.

The workers’ advocates who submitted the petition had the misfortune of dropping it in the mail just days before the 2013 government shutdown, so at the time some commentators cut the agency some slack, noting that 90 percent of the agency’s staff—including everyone in the standard-setting office—were laid off. But that excuse is no longer relevant, and evidence of the need for the rule continues to pile up.

OSHA itself is at the nexus of developing new evidence on the problems that come with unsafe work speeds in poultry and meatpacking facilities. In late October, following months spent investigating a complaint at a Wayne Farms poultry slaughterhouse, OSHA issued citations for numerous violations of agency rules, as well as rare citations for violating the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. The General Duty Clause is a sort of backstop for the agency—when workers are exposed to a hazard that is causing or likely to cause serious harm, OSHA can cite an employer for failing to take action to protect the workers even if there’s no particular standard relevant to the hazard, by using the General Duty Clause.

Two of the General Duty citations in the Wayne Farms case were based on the same ergonomic hazards that could be reduced if employers were given and compelled to follow some basic rules about work speed. The petition proposed by the advocates calls for  OSHA to write just such a rule.

Wayne Farms has challenged the citations, so now we’ll have a chance to see exactly why OSHA needs to write a rule on work speed. When OSHA cited food manufacturers for ergonomics-related General Duty citations in the 1990s, the cases were highly contentious and failed to result in any case law that might motivate employers to take strong actions to reduce musculoskeletal stressors in the workplace. It is unclear what will happen in this case. More drawn out litigation is certainly a possibility, as is a settlement agreement (in the best case scenario a corporate-wide agreement that ensures all Wayne Farms workers will get some relief from excessive work speeds and painful repetitive motions).

While the Solicitor of Labor takes care of the Wayne Farms litigation, OSHA should start up the rulemaking process and draft a rule that will have broad applicability for all workers in the poultry and meatpacking industries.

To read the groups' letter click here.

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Also from Matt Shudtz

Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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