The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS) proposed a rule on Feb. 1 to alter inspection procedures for hog slaughter plants by revoking the existing cap on maximum line speeds and transferring key inspection tasks from USDA inspectors to private plant workers. These changes to current practices raise numerous concerns for worker health and safety, all of which the agency fails to address in the proposal.
Because of these concerns, Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) Member Scholars Martha McCluskey, Tom McGarity, Sid Shapiro, Rena Steinzor, and I sent comments to the agency on April 30, urging it to go back to the drawing board and account for the considerable worker health and safety risks its proposal creates before moving forward.
Meatpacking workers endure some of the most dangerous working conditions in the nation. Workers are exposed to cold, wet, noisy, and slippery conditions. Because these jobs require thousands of forceful repetitive motions per shift, musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel and shoulder injuries are rampant across the industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpacking workers experience injuries at a rate of 4.3 injuries per 100 workers, compared to the national average of 2.8 injuries per 100 workers.
Despite the awful working conditions, USDA is proposing to revoke the existing cap that dictates the maximum speed at which plants can operate their lines, exposing workers to a greater risk of injuries, including amputations and disabling musculoskeletal disorders. When workers are hurt on the job, they're forced to rely on a failing workers' compensation system that pays a small portion of their wages. In other words, when workers inside meatpacking plants are injured, they're left strapped with the physical pain from their injuries, plus emotional stress and medical bills. The workers most at risk from this proposal are low-paid, non-unionized Hispanic immigrants and other minorities living in rural communities. As we explain in our letter, a proposal that fosters this level of inequity and injustice is cruel, and frankly, beneath the civil servants of USDA and FSIS.
Another concern is that the proposal would remove many USDA inspectors from the plants and transfer their responsibilities to plant employees. Yet the agency does nothing to provide plant workers with protection from retaliation for reporting tainted products. Workers who are discouraged from reporting concerns may fear doing so because they don't want to lose their jobs or experience hostility from their supervisors. For undocumented immigrants, they have the added stress of their employer threatening to call the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The proposal also fails to mandate that the plants provide specific training to workers to ensure they are capable and competent to carry out these new inspection tasks.
Our letter calls on USDA/FSIS to account for all effects of its rulemaking, rather than looking solely at industry savings while ignoring the very real impact of this rule on workers. Regulations that seek to assist the swine slaughter industry with maximizing its profits and that seek to achieve a very modest cut to agency costs – as this rule proposes to do – certainly should not and must not come at the expense of worker safety and health, food safety, animal welfare, or the environment.