Safety advocates warn that a final rule published last week by the USDA will endanger workers who already suffer some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country.

The “Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection” rule promulgated by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) lifts speed restrictions from hog slaughter inspection lines.

Under NSIS, an optional new inspection system established by FSIS, maximum line speeds are revoked and companies allowed flexibility in reconfiguring evisceration lines. The USDA says the changes will make market hog slaughter more efficient and remove “unnecessary regulatory obstacles to industry innovation.”

Human Rights Watch says unlimited speed is dangerous.

“US meat and poultry workers are put under intense pressure to keep up with production, risking traumatic injury and disabling illness,” said Matt McConnell, research fellow in the business and human rights division and US Program at Human Rights Watch. “By giving companies the green light to accelerate their production, the US government is putting workers’ health on the line.”

National Pork Producers Council president David Herring said the new inspection system will investment in new technologies while ensuring “a safe supply of wholesome American pork.”

A report released this month by Human Rights Watch identifies line speed as a major factor contributing to high rates of serious injury among workers in meat and poultry processing plants.

Between 2015 and 2018, a worker in the industry lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day, according to severe injury data published by OSHA. Each year between 2013 and 2017, eight workers in the industry died, on average, because of an incident at their plant.

The new rule also allows company employees to conduct inspections previously performed by federal inspectors – a feature FSIS reported resulted in lower-than-average worker injury rates in plants that participated in a pilot program.

However, the USDA’s inspector general opened an investigation into whether this conclusion was based on flawed data. That investigation remains open.