Today's NewsA petition sent to OSHA and the USDA by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) and the Southern Poverty Law Center calls on OSHA to improve worker safety in poultry and meatpacking plants by issuing new work speed standards.

OSHA has general health and safety rules for workplaces but does not regulate processing line speeds.

USDA wants to increase speed

The only federal agency regulating line speed is the USDA, which is preparing to propose an increase in poultry processing line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175.

The petition also calls on the USDA to reconsider its proposed rule change. The groups say the USDA is solely focused on food safety and maximizing production for the industries, not on worker safety.

GAO report slams USDA data

 “This proposal that would allow drastic increases in poultry line speeds would have potentially devastating effects not only for consumers, but also for workers on the line,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH. “At current line speeds, thousands of workers already suffer from repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome—this proposal would likely cause many more. In addition, at faster work speeds, poultry plant workers may be more exposed to knife cuts, toxic chemicals and other hazards.”

Already, 59 percent of poultry workers develop repetitive motion injuries.

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has found that the USDA used incomplete and antiquated data in support of its plan to speed up poultry inspection lines. 

The Washington Post reported yesterday that “As a result, there are ‘questions about the validity’ of the USDA’s conclusions that the procedures, now used by a limited number of poultry plants under a pilot program, are more effective than the traditional approach at reducing pathogens such as salmonella, the GAO found.” 

GAO auditors found that the USDA, in analyzing whether the pilot inspection program improved plants’ efficiency, used data in part collected from plants more than 11 years ago and other data from a study that was more than 20 years old, the Post reports.

NIOSH study finds MSDs at current speed

More recent data, from a government study conducted by NIOSH of a South Carolina poultry plant, found that 4 in 10 workers showed signs of carpal tunnel. A majority of workers reported "multiple musculoskeletal symptoms," most commonly hand and wrist pain. And that’s before the line speed is increased. 

Out of 318 participants at the plant, 213 "reported pain, burning, numbness or tingling in their hands or wrists in the past 12 months." Furthermore, two-thirds of those 213 workers reported "awakening from sleep because of these symptoms."

This isn’t the first time National COSH has attempted to bring about a reduction in poultry and meat processing speeds; the group and its allies sent a letter to the USDA a year ago, urging the agency to withdraw its proposal. 

The United States is the largest producer of poultry and beef in the world.