This morning, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report finding that hazardous working conditions across the meat and poultry industry put workers at risk of on-the-job injuries and illnesses. While injury and illness rates reportedly declined in the decade from 2004 to 2013, GAO emphasizes that the decrease might not be because of improved working conditions in the industry. Rather, the drop is likely due to data-gathering challenges at the Department of Labor and underreporting across the industry.
GAO last looked at working conditions in the meat and poultry industry in 2005, when it found “that the meat and poultry slaughtering and processing industry was one of the most hazardous in the United States. . . .” GAO’s new report reiterates its 2005 findings about common hazards found in the industry, including “hazards associated with musculoskeletal disorders, chemical hazards, biological hazards from pathogens and animals, and traumatic injury hazards from machines and tools.” Notably, GAO’s 2005 report also pointed to inaccurate data and underreporting as major causes for concern.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome and shoulder injuries have long plagued the industry because workers are often assigned tasks that require forceful and repetitive twisting, cutting, and chopping, as well as awkward postures. GAO points to multiple studies, including the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) 2015 health hazard evaluation of workers at a Maryland poultry facility where 59 percent of jobs exceeded the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists’ (ACGIH) threshold limit value (TLV). The TLV is the level of average hand activity and peak hand force ACGIH believes workers can be exposed to repeatedly without suffering adverse health effects, which means that three in five of the jobs at the Maryland facility are hazardous to workers’ health.
To address musculoskeletal disorders across the meat and poultry industry, GAO recommends that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) work with the Commissioner of Labor Statistics to “develop and implement a cost-effective method for gathering more complete data on MSDs.”
While better data collection would certainly be an improvement over the status quo, it isn’t a real solution to the problem of MSDs and other repetitive motion injuries, and it wouldn’t make processing plants safer and healthier places to work. This is because better recordkeeping wouldn’t empower workers to report injuries more often, ensure employers record injuries when they happen, or address an industry culture focused on accelerating production at the expense of worker safety and training programs.
A more comprehensive solution would be for OSHA to address MSDs directly with a national standard, as well as to conduct more routine inspections of the industry and impose hefty fines that deter violations. A useful starting point for designing a national standard might be the thoroughly vetted proposal that OSHA put together in the late 1990s. That proposal addressed ergonomic hazards in a wide array of industries and was infamously disrupted by Republicans using the Congressional Review Act’s provisions for election-year shenanigans. The Southern Poverty Law Center petitioned Obama’s OSHA to revisit the idea of an ergonomics standard, tailoring it to the hazards in the meat and poultry industries. But OSHA’s standard-setting office declined to act, carrying on a legacy of failing to protect an especially vulnerable worker community.
Recently implemented regional emphasis programs targeting the meat and poultry industry show the promise and peril of relying on existing standards. These programs focus on recordkeeping violations and safety and health hazards commonly found in meat and poultry facilities. Expanding them industry-wide could be a good first step toward reducing injury and illness rates and eliminating hazards. But these programs rely on OSHA’s General Duty Clause, a statutory back-stop, to address ergonomic hazards that are not covered by more specific standards. Industry is fighting OSHA tooth-and-nail over this approach, and it will take years of litigation before we know how effective it will be.