GAO Report Finds Injured Meat & Poultry Workers Denied Medical Care at Worksite

Suggests an Effort to Suppress Reported Injury Rates, Say Advocates

Following is a statement from Debbie Berkowitz, senior fellow with the National Employment Law Project:

“In a study released this morning, the Government Accountability Office reports that workers in the meat and poultry industry who suffer serious injuries at work are being denied medical treatment, which we believe suggests an effort by plant operators to avoid reporting injuries to the government so as to keep reported injury rates artificially low.

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“The GAO report is replete with examples of workers with serious injuries who were told to go back to the line when they requested to see a doctor—so the company did not have to report the injury—only to find out when they sought a doctor on their own that they had fractured their wrists.

“It is clear from the report that the meat and poultry industry cuts corners when it comes to worker safety. Workers continue to be exposed to dangerous conditions, are denied adequate medical treatment when they are injured on the job, and are pressured to not report injuries.

“Citing evaluations by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other academic studies, the report finds that workers in the meat and poultry industry are facing the same hazardous conditions previously cited by the GAO in 2005—including traumatic injuries from machines and tools, exposure to chemicals and pathogens, and fast-paced repetitive tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders.

“Workers continue to have their arms mangled in machines, their hands gouged by a neighbor’s hook because they work so fast and stand so close together, and their fingers crushed in equipment that lacks safeguards. They continue to suffer from musculoskeletal disorders due to repetitive, forceful exertions, and awkward postures. They continue to get sick from the widespread use of caustic disinfectants in the plant.

“Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that meat and poultry workers continue to suffer higher rates of injuries and illnesses than the average for all U.S. industries. In 2014, poultry workers suffered a serious injury and illness rate 1.6 times higher than the average for all workers; meatpacking workers suffered a rate almost three times the average. Further, the reported rate of occupational illnesses in the poultry industry remains six times higher than the average for all U.S. industries.

“Just last month, OSHA reported that the meat and poultry industry had the 8th highest rate of all industries for reported severe injuries, with more than 17 workers undergoing amputation or hospitalization every month.

“But these high rates are actually an undercount. Government inspections in the meat and poultry industry have shown that more injuries occur than are reported. Many workers may not be reporting injuries for fear of losing their job. In fact, workers are pressured to not report injuries, according to the GAO report, which cites conversations with workers who were punished for visiting the plant health units or were ignored by the health units when they sought medical treatment.

“Most alarmingly, the GAO report confirms what numerous other reports and government investigations have found: that poultry and meatpacking plants are denying adequate medical treatment to workers who are seriously injured. The report also underscores the industry’s egregious practice of penalizing workers who take a sick day to recover from a work-related injury.

“Instead of sending these workers to a doctor, which might necessitate that the injury be recorded on government injury reporting forms, the company health units send workers back to the line, regardless of how hurt they have been, hoping the worker will quit or leave and get medical help on their own.

“The GAO study comes just two weeks after a scathing report by Oxfam America spotlighted the degrading and dehumanizing practice in many poultry plants of denying workers the right to use the bathroom, forcing many workers to soil themselves or wear diapers at work.

“The GAO report underscores the importance of expanding OSHA’s current targeted inspections programs in the meat and poultry industry, and urges the agency to investigate the hazards faced by all workers in the industry, including sanitation workers.

“The report concludes that more accurate injury and illness data in the meat and poultry industry is needed, lending support to a new rule issued by OSHA earlier this month that requires better tracking of workplace injuries and illnesses and addresses illegal employer retaliation against workers for reporting an injury.

“Regarding the recent push by the industry to increase the maximum line speed allowed in poultry and meat processing plants, the GAO report’s findings should send a clear message to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the already fast line speeds in the industry must never be increased, because they are already exposing workers to severe injuries and illnesses.”

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