USDA to poultry plant workers: no promise we’ll address line speed hazards

by Celeste Monforton

October 21, 2013

“Es ridículo,” was the reaction of a poultry plant worker when he heard of the USDA’s proposal to “modernize” poultry slaughter. The agency’s January 2012 proposal (77 Fed Reg 4408) would allow companies to increase assembly line speeds from about 90 to 175 birds per minute, and remove most USDA inspectors from the poultry processing line.

The Obama Administration should have heard the loud and clear opposition from civil rights, food safety, public health and the workers’ safety communities to the USDA’s proposal.  When the public comment period closed in May 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Nebraska Appleseed, the American Public Health Association and other groups were on record urging the Administration to withdraw the proposed rule.  The National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the U.S., put it bluntly: 

“this proposed rule runs counter to what we would expect from an administration with a public commitment to protecting vulnerable workers.”

Although calls to withdraw the proposal have fallen on the Obama Administration’s deaf ears, poultry workers and their advocates have not given up. As Lizzie Grossman reported last month, their appeal now extends beyond just demands to withdraw the proposed rule.

Fifteen organizations, including the Coalition of Poultry Workers, Farmworker Advocacy Network, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, filed a petition with the USDA and the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA to issue mandatory standards on line speeds in order to protect poultry and meatpacking workers from disabling musculoskeletal injuries. The well-researched, 70-page petition concludes: 

This petition has demonstrated that there is a compelling need for a standard that properly regulates the dangerously high work speeds in meatpacking and poultry plants. The close relationship among the relentless speed of work, repetitive motions, and the prevalence of crippling and debilitating injuries establishes that OSHA and USDA have an obligation to regulate work speeds in these industries.

SPLC and the other petitioners have not yet received a response to their petition from OSHA. I’ll  chalk up their delay to the government shutdown. (Ninety percent of OSHA’s staff is laid off, including everyone in the office responsible for developing new regulations.)

USDA, however, sent a response to the petitioners a few weeks ago.  The letter uses the mushy term “consider” to describe how it might address the evidence provided by commenters on the increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries with intensified line speeds.  USDA Secretary Vilsackcontinues to insist that worker safety matters are the responsibility of the Labor Department and CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  His agency makes no promise to accept OSHA’s and NIOSH’s recommendations for the rule on ways to minimize the risk of injury to poultry plant workers.

Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Immigrant Justice Project, reacted to the USDA’s response this way: 

“The USDA continues to sweep under the rug the real injuries suffered by workers because of the current punishing line speeds. Once again, the agency’s initial response fails to adequately address current worker safety issues – such as repetitive motion injuries – that will only be intensified by the planned increase in line speeds. We urge the USDA to issue a final response that includes a rule addressing the link between speed and repetitive motion injuries.“ 

USDA’s proposal, if implemented, will benefit poultry producers an estimated $1 billion over five years. Those hefty earnings will come at the expense of the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and backs of poultry workers. The civil rights and public health communities will surely see the Obama Administration in a much different light if USDA is allowed to implement this rule.

This blog is cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

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Also from Celeste Monforton

Celeste Monforton joined the Milken Institute School of Public Health in 2006. She is a regular contributor to the "Pump Handle," a blog known as "a water cooler for the public health crowd." She continues her work in occupational health and maintains her ties to The George Washington University by serving as a professorial lecturer.

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