Photo by Earl Dotter. www.earldotter.com

It’s not all bad news for workers out there. Curiously, however, the good news for poultry workers is coming from an uncharacteristic place: the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

USDA has denied an petition from the National Chicken Council asking to let meatpackers operating under a new inspection system to run their plants “at any line speed” they could handle safely. And by “safely,” we don’t mean safely for workers; we main “safely” as related to food contamination.  The current line speed limit is 140 birds-per-minute and USDA argued that the poultry industry “did not include data to demonstrate that inspectors can conduct an effective carcass-by-carcass inspection at line speeds faster than those authorized” under the new inspection system. The left open the possibility of company-by-company waivers, but hasn’t established any criteria yet.

Needless to say, worker advocates, who provided evidence that workers would be harmed at faster line speeds, were very pleased:

“This is a direct rebuke of the poultry industry, whose business model is to sacrifice worker health in order to reap profits,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior official with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration who is now a senior fellow with the worker rights group National Employment Law Project.

Berkowitz and other food-safety and worker rights advocates opposed the council’s petition, which the poultry industry said would have increased efficiency and modernized systems.

Berkowitz also called upon the industry to cease its efforts to allow policies that endanger workers. “The highly profitable poultry industry, which already pays poverty wages and keeps workers in disturbingly unsafe and unhealthy workplaces, should stop lobbying the government to allow it to further endanger workers. Instead, it should lift labor standards for the 250,000 workers who help feed this nation.”

In a letter to USDA last Fall opposing the new line speeds, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Ranking Member of the House Labor Appropriations Committee noted that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) research shows staggeringly high rates of injuries directly related to the rapid, repetitive movements these workers must perform. In one study, 34 percent of such workers had carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and 76 percent had evidence of nerve damage in their hands and wrists. In another study, 42 percent had CTS. Further, workers in the poultry industry suffer finger amputations at the single highest rate of any U.S. industry.

Thirteen non-profit organizations and unions, including worker rights, civil rights, consumer safety, public health, and animal welfare groups—met with top officials last month to “to urge them to reject a poultry industry petition to allow faster and unrestricted line speeds in poultry plants.”  And last August, the groups sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sunny Purdue calling on him to ”oppose any proposed rule that would increase line speeds in poultry plants within the United States above the current 140 birds per minute (bpm).”

The current USDA New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) essentially privatizes food safety inspections. Poultry companies voluntarily agree to inspect food themselves, reducing the number of federal inspectors, in return for being able to increase their line speed.  Plants operating under that system can now operate as fast as 175 birds per minute. So far only 20 poultry processing plants operate under the optional inspection program. The Chicken Council wants to remove all limits for participants in the program. USDA said it had received over 100,000 public comments on the Chicken Council’s petition. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said that thousands of its members had submitted comments on the proposal.

But not only do faster line speeds hurt workers, but they haven’t even proved to guard food safety. According to Food and Water Watch, “there is a greater propensity for chicken slaughter plants that converted to the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) to fail the agency’s salmonella performance standard.” And most of the plants monitored under NPIS, don’t even run their lines at 175 birds per minute.

Meanwhile, a proposal to increase work speeds in the pork processing industry is still alive and well. Food safety and worker advocates are keeping an eye on that.

And back at OSHA…

You may remember last December, OSHA Acting Assistant Secretary told the Government Accounting Office to go shove it when the GAO recommended that OSHA “consider off-site interviews or exploring other options to obtain information anonymously,” and that OSHA inspectors make a greater effort to ask poultry workers about the extent to which bathroom access is a problem. The recommendations were intended to respond to findings that poultry workers are intimidated about reporting health and safety problems to OSHA, particularly about their inability to get bathroom breaks.

Now Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Robert Casey (D-PA) have joined Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in a letter to Secretary of Labor Acosta, expressing their fear that OSHA is abandoning its core mission to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the country safe and healthful working conditions.  The letter asked why OSHA had refused to comply with the GAO recommendations and request information about what OSHA is doing to protect the health and safety of poultry workers, as well as sanitation workers on graveyard shifts who suffer horrific incidents as described recently in an amazing investigative report by Peter Waldman and Kartikay Mehrotra at Bloomberg Businessweek.

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