NELP Applauds GAO Report on Workplace Hazards in Meat and Poultry Industry

Following is a statement from Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project, and a former chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

“We applaud the recommendations of the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) report released today calling on three government agencies—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—to do a better job of coordinating and investigating workplace hazards in the meat and poultry industry to ensure that workers are protected.

“The GAO report confirms that dangerous working conditions persist in the nation’s meat and poultry industry—including serious amputation hazards, potential health effects from widespread use of toxic chemicals, and illnesses caused by the delay and denial of bathroom breaks for workers in the plants.

“The report confirms that the meat and poultry industry, in its quest to keep production lines running at any and all costs, is not only cutting corners on worker safety but further dehumanizing workers by denying them legally required bathroom breaks. As documented in the report, workers throughout the meat and poultry industry are being denied the right to use bathrooms at work—and are suffering serious health effects as a result.

“The report also details widespread fear among workers of being fired or punished if they raise safety concerns to their plant management or to government inspectors. Workers told GAO they feared being punished if they ask to use the bathroom, or if they ask to see the health unit when they are injured.

“Echoing the finding of its 2016 report, the GAO was particularly critical of how in-plant health units treat injured workers—highlighting new concerns of inappropriate response to worker injuries and illnesses and persons working outside their legal scope of practice. (The 2016 report confirmed that meat and poultry workers continued to face 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.)

“This report comes at a time when the poultry industry has petitioned the USDA for exemption from line speed limits so poultry plants can run their processing lines as fast as they want—which would clearly jeopardize worker safety and health. Poultry workers already work in harsh conditions and at breakneck line speeds. As a result, even industry-reported statistics show that workers face illness rates five times the national average. Among all industries reporting to the federal government, the poultry industry had a higher number of severe injuries than much of the construction industry, the auto industry, the steel industry, and the saw mill industry, for example. The USDA must reject the industry’s petition.

“We call on all three government agencies to implement the GAO recommendations. We are stunned that OSHA’s response to the glaring findings in this report is to announce a rollback of longstanding enforcement policies, thereby ensuring that the poultry industry will have an easier time hiding serious hazards. The inevitable result will be even more injuries to this already vulnerable worker population. That is simply unacceptable.”

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