A startling new report by Oxfam America reveals just how dangerous it is to work inside a poultry processing plant. The report is packed full of alarming statistics and heart-breaking personal stories from brave workers, exposing an industry that fails to protect workers from well-known hazards and that discourages workers from reporting injuries when they occur.
Despite the underreporting of injuries and illnesses, the poultry industry’s safety record is dismal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry had 4.5 total recordable cases per 100,000 full-time workers in 2013, compared to the national average for private industry of 3.3 total recordable cases. Among the common injuries in the industry, poultry workers suffer a high incidence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), like carpal tunnel syndrome and shoulder injuries, from repetitive and forceful twisting, cutting, and chopping movements.
Recognizing these hazards, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has recently taken some noteworthy steps to address them. In 2013, OSHA updated its industry guidance addressing ergonomic hazards. OSHA has also cited employers for ergonomic hazards under the General Duty Clause, including a Delaware facility operated by Allen Harim foods as well as a Wayne Farms plant in Alabama. And on the same day that Oxfam released its new report, OSHA announced that eight states—four in OSHA Region IV (AL, GA, FL, MS) and four in OSHA Region VI (AR, LA, OK, TX)—have established emphasis programs targeting the poultry processing industry.
Under these programs, which will operate for one year, inspectors can expand complaint, referral, or other un-programmed partial inspections to comprehensive inspections. This will allow inspectors to look for violations related to injury recordkeeping, chemical hazard communication, ergonomic hazards, confined space hazards, hazards encountered by sanitation crews, electrical and machine guarding hazards, high hazard chemicals, and bio hazards.
This is a certainly a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, there are many more steps before the nearest milestone. First, the poultry industry has a large presence in other states that oversee their own OHS plans and aren’t required to participate in these regional programs, such as North Carolina and South Carolina. Second, the number of inspections isn’t likely to increase because the program doesn’t set a specific number to be conducted. Ultimately, this means companies will only be cited for violations if OSHA happens to conduct an inspection—an increasingly rare phenomena, due to the scarcity of inspectors caused by budget constraints.
While some progress is better than none, a better solution would be for OSHA to establish a national standard to address hazards prevalent in the poultry industry and ramp up enforcement by conducting comprehensive inspections and imposing significant fines for violations. Unfortunately, despite best efforts by workers and advocacy groups, OSHA has declined to issue a new rule, citing its lack of resources for its inaction.
OSHA’s inaction, whatever the reason, is especially concerning given that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS)—the agency responsible for food safety inside the plants—has been working hard to reduce its role in overseeing poultry processing. The agency has recently begun implementing a rule to “modernize” poultry inspection by removing many federal inspectors from the line. As more plants join the new system, the plant will take over responsibility for inspecting its own products. It’s unclear why USDA no longer sees a need for its line inspectors inside these plants. Equally unclear is why companies that ignore their own workers’ safety would care more about the folks consuming their products, without regulatory pressure.
To that last point, unfortunately, it’s worth noting that the USDA/FSIS rule not only affects food safety, but it also increases risks to workers. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a health hazard evaluation of workers at a Maryland facility operating under the “modernized” inspection system and found that 81 percent of jobs exceeded recommended limits of hand activity and force and 34 percent met the NIOSH case definition for carpal tunnel syndrome.
Is there any good news? It appears that Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. poultry company, received the news about the Oxfam report and OSHA’s new emphasis programs. Just days prior, Tyson announced plans to slightly raise wages for roughly 30,000 workers, with entry-level workers now earning roughly $10/hour and those working for over a year earning about $12/hr. A few days later, in time for the news from Oxfam and OSHA, Tyson announced that it has just “launched a pilot project” in nine of its facilities, the findings of which “are expected to provide the groundwork for a company-wide improved safety initiative.”
At first glance, that sounds promising. But the press release lacks any mention of which nine facilities will participate out of the more than 400 facilities Tyson operates globally, or what the pilot program has been tasked with finding, or even how long the pilot program will remain in effect. Moreover, Tyson, as well as the National Chicken Council and U.S. Poultry and Egg Association have already pushed back on the findings of the Oxfam report, claiming that they have already done much of what’s recommended.
Of course, the truth is that there’s still plenty of room for improvement across the industry, as its above-average injury rate makes abundantly clear. If Tyson and the poultry industry as a whole won’t even admit that they aren’t doing everything right, it’s hard to believe they’re committed to making real changes that would safeguard workers or ensure the products they produce are safe for consumers to eat.