Twenty-seven workers suffer severe injuries involving hospitalization or an amputation every day, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in a report based on OSHA severe injury data. These numbers cover just over half the states.
The NELP report singles out the poultry industry, reporting that two poultry companies, Tyson Foods and JBS/ Pilgrim’s Pride, stand out as two of the top seven reporters to OSHA.
“OSHA’s severe injury data shines a light on the severe toll of preventable workplace injuries, especially in the U.S. poultry industry,” said Debbie Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project and the report’s lead author. “The workers who put food on our tables should not have to sacrifice their health for a paycheck.”
“The workers who put food on our tables should not have to sacrifice their health for a paycheck.” -Deborah Berkowitz
OSHA began collecting this data in 2015. OSHA issued a regulation in 2014 requiring employers to report employers to report all hospitalizations to OSHA, as well as amputations and loss of an eye. Prior to that, employers were only required to report fatalities and hospitalizations of three or more workers.
Poultry Industry Comes under Criticism
The food processing industry is generally not a nice place to work as the NELP report describes:
Workers in the nation’s poultry and meat plants face harsh and dangerous conditions. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that poultry workers suffer a work-related injury and illness at rates 1.6 times higher than other workers, and meatpacking workers at a rate twice as high. The reported rate of occupational illnesses in poultry plants is of particular concern, with rates remaining at more than six times the average for all U.S. industries. In the past few years, numerous reports have documented the unsafe and inhumane conditions poultry workers face—including being denied their legal right to use the bathroom.
Because of these harsh conditions, many plants report turnover of between 50 to 100 percent. Poultry processing workers make thousands of forceful cuts a day using knives and scissors in cold and damp conditions, with acidic chemicals often being sprayed over the carcasses, and incidentally over the workers themselves, as the meat move down the line. The speed of work in poultry plants already causes far too many workplace injuries.
NELP reports that “Tyson Foods plants under federal OSHA over a 21-month period, the company reported 70 work-related amputations or hospitalizations; at JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride, the company reported that 51 workers suffered such severe injuries.”
And there is evidence that the poultry industry is under-counting the number of injuries its workers suffer:
Three government agencies, OSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the GAO, have found that the poultry processing industry is underreporting the serious injuries that occur in the plants. OSHA has fined poultry plants for recordkeeping violations, most recently in January with a citation to Tyson Foods. Further, recent agency inspections found that onsite medical units in poultry plants are actually set up to be obstacles to accurate reporting. In one poultry plant inspection in 2015, the OSHA area director stated: “The medical management practices at this facility create an environment of fear and distrust. The use of the first aid station to prevent injuries from being reported as required by law undermines the purpose of on-site treatment and leaves employees at risk of further injury. Discouraging workers from reporting injuries is unacceptable.”
In 2016, OSHA issued only the second citation of its kind in the agency’s 47-year history to Pilgrim’s Pride, alleging that “the employer delayed evaluation, care, and/or treatment from a medical provider, which could result in health hazards such as, but not limited to, increased risk of further injury, prolonged healing, exacerbation of pain and limited recovery from work-related injuries/illnesses.” The citation went on to describe that Pilgrim’s Pride “failed to make timely appropriate medical referrals for employees with injuries related to chronic and acute exposures and incidents. The employees are exposed to injuries which include burns, loss of consciousness, and blunt force trauma which require appropriate evaluation and treatment.”
Will Tyson follow through on these commitments, and if not, will workers feel secure enough to complain to company managers or to OSHA, especially in Tyson’s non-unionized facilities?
Tyson Agrees to Clean Up its Act
The critique of the poultry industry, and particularly Tyson, comes at the same time that Oxfam and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) have entered into an agreement with company promising better working conditions for Tyson’s employees. Tyson has come under considerable criticism recently for the way it treats its employees:
A Harvest Public Media investigation found that the more than 500,000 men and women who work in slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants have some of the most dangerous factory jobs in America. Government fines for abuses are low and lines speeds are so fast that workers are often crippled for life with repetitive motion problems, the investigation found.
In a report issued last year called “No Relief,” Oxfam charged that workers at the four largest U.S. poultry companies — Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride — are routinely denied bathroom breaks, forcing some to wear adult diapers to work and others to urinate on themselves in order to avoid retribution from supervisors.
Tyson has agreed to provide regularly scheduled bathroom breaks, adjust its plant line speeds and give workers the right to shut down a line, train workers about their rights and establish safety councils that include hourly employees.
Given the company’s difficult history (and conditions within the industry in general), this experiment in sustainability will be interesting. Will Tyson follow through on these commitments, and if not, will workers feel secure enough to complain to company managers or to OSHA, especially in Tyson’s non-unionized facilities? Tyson has also fight unionization of its plants and has led efforts to weaken workers compensation. Have they transformed themselves under pressure from Oxfam and the UFCW? Time will tell.