Today's NewsThe Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a formal petition yesterday urging OSHA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve worker safety in poultry and meatpacking plants, contending that federal policies allow workers in these facilities to operate in hazardous conditions that often leave them with disabling injuries, illnesses and pain. 

The groups petitioned OSHA to issue new work speed standards to protect the workers responsible for making the U.S. the largest producer of poultry and beef in the world. OSHA’s health and safety rules for workplace do not include regulations regarding processing line speeds – which the SPLC says often operate at a punishing pace. 

The only federal agency regulating line speed is the USDA, which is solely focused on food safety and maximizing production for the industries.

USDA wants lines to go faster

“Though there is ample evidence that work speed is a primary contributor to injuries, the USDA has proposed increasing poultry processing line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175,” according to a statement by the SPLC.

The groups’ petition also calls on the USDA to reconsider its proposed rule change.

“Meatpacking and poultry processing line jobs are among the most notoriously dangerous jobs in the United States,” the petition states. “OSHA’s current failure to regulate poultry and meat processing plant work speed puts plant workers at significant risk of permanently disabling cumulative trauma disorders,” such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which are caused by the extraordinary number of repetitive motions these workers perform.

20,000 cuts a day

The SPLC says meat and poultry workers often make 20,000 cuts a day to the meat and poultry on the line.

“Many fear losing their jobs if they report injuries or ask for safer working conditions. This silence enables companies to hide true injury rates that are far higher than what is publicly reported.”

The petition urges OSHA to implement the following changes to protect workers:

  • Establish a standard that limits work speeds.
  • Create standards that address the specific injuries caused by keeping up with the line speeds.
  • Ensure that existing safety guidelines are enforceable.

The groups also ask USDA to engage in thorough interagency consultation about worker safety before implementing its proposed poultry rule changes that would increase work speeds in poultry processing.

Disposable workers

These hazards have been documented by the SPLC in its 2013 report Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers. Nebraska Appleseed documented similar dangers in the meatpacking industry in its 2009 report The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers.

The coalition includes the SPLC, Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Coalition of Poultry Workers, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Farmworker Advocacy Network, Heartland Workers Center, Interfaith Worker Justice, Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, North Carolina Justice Center, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center, Refugee Women’s Network, Student Action with Farmworkers and Western North Carolina Workers’ Center.