Relaxing Regulations at Poultry Plants a Threat to Worker, Consumer Safety

Health Letter article, November 2013

In September 2013, a coalition of worker safety groups submitted a petition to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate and reduce assembly line speeds in meat and poultry processing plants, with a goal of minimizing ergonomic injuries (injuries due to repetitive motions) related to high line speeds.

Over the past year, worker safety advocates have rallied against a proposed rule issued by the USDA that would allow poultry corporations to increase the speed of the assembly lines in their processing plants. The rule would permit the plants to process 175 birds per minute, a marked increase from the current limit of 140 birds per minute. The rule would mean increased production and higher profits for the handful of large corporations that dominate the chicken market. Yet for the poultry workers on the assembly lines barely keeping up with current speeds, the rule portends only more onerous — and dangerous — work.

Labor advocates are struggling to prevent the finalization of the rule, which also would dramatically reduce the number of federal inspectors ensuring the safety of chickens and turkeys at the slaughterhouses. In addition to petitioning OSHA and the USDA to regulate line speeds in meat and poultry processing plants, protests were held at the White House in late September to highlight the issues at stake for the more than 200,000 poultry workers across the country.

The USDA’s line speed proposal

Thousands of USDA inspectors are tasked with ensuring the safety and integrity of the food produced in the nation’s meat and poultry plants. At poultry plants, every assembly line has up to four inspectors, with each one responsible for visually inspecting a maximum of 35 carcasses per minute. Visible fecal contamination, diseased and disfigured carcasses, and cosmetic flaws are examples of defects resulting in the removal of carcasses from assembly lines. (Inspectors in other areas of the plants test samples for defects not visible to line inspectors, such as bacterial contaminants or smaller structural defects.)

Under current regulations, USDA inspectors on poultry assembly lines are responsible for visually inspecting, identifying defects, and, when necessary, removing every carcass slaughtered at the plants. In 1998, the USDA initiated a series of studies as part of a push to transfer the bulk of these food safety activities from government inspectors to the companies that operate the plants. The ongoing pilot studies allow company employees to perform the initial inspections of carcasses and leave only carcasses deemed likely to pass visual inspection on the line. Three of the four USDA line inspectors are removed, leaving a single government inspector at the end of the line to double-check the company’s work.

In January 2012, the USDA published a proposed regulation that would allow all poultry plants to adopt this model of self-oversight. Under current line speed regulations, the sole remaining USDA inspector would thus be responsible for inspecting four times the number of birds per minute as before. However, instead of reducing assembly line speeds to accommodate this increased burden on the inspector, the USDA proposed an increase in the maximum speeds from the current 140 birds per minute (four inspectors responsible for 35 birds each) to 175 birds per minute, all examined by a single inspector. This means that the USDA inspector will have just one-third of a second to evaluate each chicken carcass for contamination and other visual defects. The proposed rule would therefore effectively transfer the burden of inspecting the birds onto the plant’s already overwhelmed workers.

As many organizations that have studied the issue point out, dismembering and gutting up to 140 chickens per minute (let alone 175 birds per minute) leaves insufficient time for all but the most cursory examinations for toxic materials, which eventually find their way to the consumer. Workers also may fear negative consequences of disrupting the work flow and thus may be reluctant to report defects — a dynamic not in play with federal inspectors.

Forcing workers to assume this responsibility while giving federal inspectors less than a second to ensure food safety does not bode well for consumers. Even if the companies were to hire dedicated inspectors to perform this task, it stands to reason that inspectors paid by the companies are more likely to be biased against removing potentially unsafe products (which would reduce the profits of their employer).

Meanwhile, food-borne illness due to poultry is epidemic. Over the last decade, more food-borne deaths were attributable to poultry than to any other category of food. More than 900,000 illnesses, 6,600 hospitalizations and 270 deaths occur every year from poultry-acquired illnesses. In a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Campylobacter bacteria, one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the U.S., was found on almost half of the raw chicken purchased in grocery stores.

Workers bear the burden

Line speed is a central concern of the workers manning the poultry slaughterhouse lines, as revealed in a recent survey of poultry workers. Several co-signatories of the 2013 petition to OSHA and the USDA, including the SPLC and Nebraska Appleseed, interviewed 55 poultry workers from four different states to gauge their attitudes on the conditions under which they work. The workers reported performing between 15,000 and 100,000 identical hand motions per shift, with no pauses of any kind allowed between motions. When asked what they would consider a safe line speed, three-fourths of the workers responded that only line speeds at least 20 to 50 percent slower than current levels would be safe.

Not surprisingly, the injury rate under current conditions is among the highest in the country. The U.S. Department of Labor reported 133 nonfatal work-related injuries for every 10,000 full-time poultry processing workers in 2010, more than six times higher than the national average across all industries. Meatpacking workers suffer repetitive-motion injuries, on average, 1 1/2 times more frequently than other manufacturing workers. Many workers are simply let go after becoming permanently disabled and replaced by a fresh pair of hands. As with all workplace injuries, pervasive underreporting by both workers and employers conceals the true scale of the problem, and the public rarely gets a first-hand look at what goes on in the intensely secretive plants.

In 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, both co-signers of the OSHA/USDA line speed petition, published a report documenting the experience of poultry plant workers in Alabama. Titled Unsafe at These Speeds, the report is the result of interviews with 302 current and former poultry workers in Alabama, discussing their work in the plants. Nearly three-fourths of the workers reported at least one significant work-related injury or illness during their time in the plants, such as “debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns and respiratory problems.” Two-thirds of the workers reported symptoms consistent with ergonomic injuries.

The injuries incurred by poultry workers go largely unreported due to what one worker described as a “climate of fear” pervading the plants. Many workers avoid reporting an injury or even asking for a rest or bathroom break (with some resorting to urinating on themselves) for fear of reprimand or even termination.

This fear is understandable, as many workers in meat and poultry plants are undocumented immigrants living precariously both inside and outside of work, laying low so as to avoid the scrutiny of immigration authorities. Unscrupulous supervisors at the plants take advantage of workers’ fears by wielding the specter of arrest and deportation, as documented in several surveys of workers.

Advocacy to protect workers

There are currently no federal or state line speed regulations to protect workers in these plants (the USDA line speed regulations are designed to address food inspections, not protect workers). In fact, no federal regulations currently exist to specifically protect workers in any industry from the sort of repetitive motion musculoskeletal injuries that afflict meat and poultry workers, despite the fact that musculoskeletal disorders account for one-third of all occupational injuries, with hundreds of thousands of workers afflicted every year.

In 2000, after an almost 10-year process and numerous delays, OSHA finalized the first-ever occupational ergonomics regulation requiring millions of employers to institute comprehensive work safety programs in response to musculoskeletal injuries incurred in high-risk work environments. The regulation required employers to outline plans to analyze work processes causing injuries. It also mandated that companies implement strategies, including worker participation and training, to redesign dangerous work procedures to minimize future injuries.

Unfortunately, the rule was short-lived. In 2001, Congress invoked the Congressional Review Act — which gives Congress the authority to effectively revoke new regulations adopted by federal agencies that have not yet taken effect — to overturn the regulation. This move also prohibited OSHA from issuing any future ergonomics rules that are “substantially the same,” unless the new rule is specifically authorized by a new Act of Congress. The George W. Bush administration concurred, claiming that the rule was “unduly burdensome” to business. Thirteen years later, a new rule has yet to be promulgated, and some experts argue that new legislation would be required before OSHA could issue a new rule on ergonomics.

Other experts counter that OSHA can, in fact, legally proceed with regulations protecting workers from ergonomics injuries, assuming these proposed rules are not “substantially the same” as the defunct 2000 regulation. The coalition of worker safety groups that filed the September 2013 petition to OSHA and the USDA regarding line speeds at meat and poultry processing plants argued that a regulation targeted at a specific industry and a specific set of tasks (e.g., those associated with assembly line speed in meat and poultry plants) would be qualitatively different from the previous rule, which was more broadly targeted at all ergonomics injuries in all industries. The USDA and OSHA have yet to formally approve or deny the petition request and likely will not for months, or even years, as is standard in such cases.

In the absence of a regulation, OSHA has the authority, under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, to hold accountable employers that expose workers to ergonomics hazards. However, the agency rarely enforces worker safety violations under such a broad standard except in egregious cases, as successful enforcement generally requires the agency to meet a high burden of proof. Since 2001, when OSHA’s ergonomics regulation was rescinded by Congress, the agency has issued just 25 General Duty Clause citations to employers across the entire country for violations that put their workers at risk for ergonomic injuries.

Meanwhile, the USDA, under the Obama administration, seems to be proceeding on pace with its proposal to allow Big Poultry to ramp up line speeds even further than the already inhuman rates allowed under current law. Despite laudable opposition from workers and consumer advocates, the Obama administration will likely finalize the rule within the next few months, with poultry workers warily watching on and helplessly awaiting the crushing toll on their overworked bodies.

See the March 2012 issue of Health Letter (“The Jungle: Meatpacking Workers, 100 Years Later”: for a look at the historical evolution of labor struggles within the meatpacking industry.

The average American eats 84 pounds of chicken per year, more than double the 40 pounds per year consumed in 1970. This unprecedented consumption has been made possible by the industrialization of chicken production in the U.S., with the number of farms producing chickens falling by 98 percent since 1950 and the typical “farm” (now more appropriately known as a factory farm) now producing more than 600,000 chickens every year, up from 300,000 as recently as 1987. Paralleling this industrialization has been a consolidation of the industry into fewer and increasingly more powerful hands, with four companies now controlling 57 percent of all chicken production in the U.S.

The deplorable conditions in which the chickens live out their short lives in these secretive factory farms have been increasingly publicized by organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and writers, such as Jonathan Safran Foer in his book Eating Animals.