Letter to the editor: Line speeds, worker safety are real concerns

Editor Dan Flynn’s Jan. 12 letter supporting the USDA’s new swine slaughter rule perpetuates so many falsehoods, it merits a lengthy response. Among other things, the new rule removes all line speed limits in pig slaughter plants. Despite Flynn’s claims, which were based on his visit to a veal plant in the Netherlands that operates under an entirely different regulatory regime, the evidence in the United States shows that the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) will significantly increase the risk of injury to the people who work the lines.

Meatpacking is already one of the most dangerous industries for workers in America. Every day, tens of thousands of hog slaughter workers make the same repetitive motions, thousands upon thousands of times a day, using saws, hooks, and knives to slaughter and break down hogs into the pork steaks that we all buy and eat.

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The plants are loud, wet, and slippery from fat and grease. They are hot on the slaughter side and very cold on the fabrication side. The production pressure on all workers is unrelenting — keep the lines running at all costs. The result: overall injury and illness rates twice the national average; and illness rates, which include repetitive motion injuries, among the highest of all industries in the United States.

The scientific evidence in the record for the NSIS is clear: the faster hog slaughter workers must do their tasks, the higher the risk of injury. The record contains more than three decades of studies directly tying line speeds to the industry’s staggeringly high rate of work-related injuries and illnesses. In fact, 30 years ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published guidelines to help meatpackers reduce the high rates of repetitive motion disorders in their plants, stating that one way to decrease these disorders is by “reducing the total number of repetitions per employee by such means as decreasing production rates.” OSHA, however, does not directly regulate line speeds. And despite its 30-year-old recommendation, line speeds have not decreased and injury rates remain shockingly high.

Worker safety is not a red herring. There are real negative consequences for workers, consumers, and animal welfare. Even USDA stated in its NSIS proposed rule that “evaluation of the effects of line speed on food safety should include the effects of line speed on establishment employee safety.” High rates of worker injury lead to high turnover rates, which studies have shown leads to decreases in food safety. In fact, the USDA did not allow chicken plants to increase their line speeds in the 2014 New Poultry Inspection System because of concerns about the impact on worker and consumer safety. But the current USDA completely failed to address this concern in finalizing the NSIS.

The USDA received thousands of comments requesting that it consider the impact of the proposed rule on worker safety — just like USDA would consider any other unintended consequences of its regulatory action, as agencies are required to do as a basic principle of governance. These commenters submitted detailed, credible evidence, but were given the brush-off.

When the USDA first proposed its rule removing line speed limits, it relied on a flawed data analysis—which it tried to hide from the public—that downplayed the dangers posed to workers. After being lambasted by statistical experts for its head-scratching findings, the USDA has since tried to wash its hands of any worker safety analysis, claiming it lacks the necessary expertise to even examine the evidence on the impact on worker safety. Readers should be aware that the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General has opened an investigation into the agency’s reliance on a disingenuous analysis in the proposed rule, the lack of transparency, and other irregularities.

Editor Flynn’s statement that the challenge to the NSIS was brought by “the U.S. union representing our friends the meat inspectors” is simply wrong. None of the three court cases challenging the NSIS were brought by any union representing meat inspectors. Rather, the pending Minnesota case was brought by unions representing the hog slaughter plant employees — the tens of thousands of workers who slaughter and break and box up the pork in processing plants nationwide, and whose physical health and safety are at stake.

It’s clear from the final rule that the USDA is fully aware that workers in pork slaughter houses will now work harder and faster because of this rule. When the agency conducted its cost-benefit analysis, the main benefits came from hog slaughter plants being allowed to crank up the chain speed and make all workers do their jobs faster. Assuming a line speed increase of 12.49 percent, USDA found that each plant that adopts the NSIS will see a profit increase of $2.04 million. That’s what this rule change is really about.

This letter to the editor was originally published in Food Safety News

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