The sorry attempt to place Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court isn’t the only bad news depressing us here at Confined Space World Headquarters today:

Poultry Plant Processing Speeds

poultry osha
Photo by Earl Dotter.

The Department of Agriculture published a notice yesterday in the Federal Register that would raise line processing speeds at certain poultry plants, raising the already high likelihood that poultry plant workers will suffer from disabling musculoskeletal disorders. Just to add insult to physical injury, USDA issued the notice without even seeking public input.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) is not amused: “It is unconscionable that the Trump administration would rush this process, without an ample opportunity for the public to weigh in. I urge the Trump administration to reverse course.” This action has been under consideration for a while. DeLauro joined Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) in sending a letter to USDA last July, stating that “it appears the agency lacks the authority to grant these waivers”  and urged the agency to abandon the policy.

According to Politico’s Morning Shift,

The policy establishes criteria to allow poultry plants to receive waivers to raise line speeds from 140 to 175 birds per minute. “We are stunned that they are not doing this through rulemaking or requesting any comment,” Debbie Berkowitz, a former policy adviser at OSHA who’s now with the National Employment Law Project, said in a written statement to Morning Shift. “This action clearly undermines the rulemaking process, violates the Administrative Procedures Act, and is inconsistent with the agency’s own regulations.”

But according to a FSIS spokesperson, FSIS has “evaluated and granted” such waivers “for many years” and its “regulations include provisions” for those waivers. “This process for granting waivers has not changed,” a FSIS spokesperson said in a statement. “In an effort to ensure complete transparency, the agency is choosing to publicly announce the criteria by which we will review line speed waivers, so there is no question about how the agency makes its decisions.”

And Hog Workers

And if chickens aren’t enough, USDA is also considering increasing line speeds in hog slaughterhouses, as we reported last April. The United Food and Commercial Workers union has sent a letter to USDA  requesting more time for the public to weigh in on a proposed rule to lift a cap on line speeds. UFCW argues that USDA did not release the injury data and analysis to the public prior to the comment period closing on May 2. According to Politico’s Morning Shift,  USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service

published a peer review plan in May, indicating that the review would be completed by July 2018. The final peer reviewed risk assessment was published on FSIS’ website Aug. 3. UFCW argues that the data “were never provided to permit careful scrutiny by the public in order to provide comment on this aspect of the proposed rule.”

And Children

Labor rights and children’s’ advocates are condemning a Labor Department rule that would allow 16- and 17-year-old nursing-home workers to operate power-driven patient lifting devices without any adult supervision or assistance. According to NELP’s Deborah Berkowitz,

The Department of Labor is deliberately ignoring the clear expert and scientific evidence about the danger of young workers using these devices unattended.  Although NELP supports the goal of providing more job-training and apprenticeship opportunities for young workers who wish to enter the health care field, we cannot do so at the expense of those very workers’ health and safety and the health and safety of nursing home residents.  This proposed rule presents far more danger than benefits to young workers and, as such, NELP must oppose its implementation.

Berkowitz points out that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded in 2011 that “many 16- and 17-year-old employees cannot safely operate power-driven hoists to lift and transfer patients by themselves.” They aren’t able to adequately assess the hazards and allowing them to operate the equipment themselves “would put them at increased risk for serious musculoskeletal injuries.” NIOSH recommended that the youngsters be assisted by an experienced caregiver who is at least 18 years of age.

The Department is justifying its action under the guise of providing more apprenticeships for young workers. OK.

Get the Lead Out — Or Not

Meanwhile, in California, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed legislation that would have ensured that CalOSHA inspectors are made aware of dangerous workers lead exposure. California Assembly Bill 2963 would have required the state’s public health agency to notify CalOSHA of blood tests showing high lead levels.

According to Bloomberg Environment,

In his veto message, Brown said the Department of Public Health already works with employers to reduce worker exposure to lead. He said the bill would “erode that collaborative approach” and require the Division of Occupational Safety and Health to take immediate enforcement action. Brown said the state should instead complete its work to establish a permissible exposure level for workers and then determine the level at which immediate intervention is needed.

The legislation resulted from a Capital and Main investigation and subsequent media articles last year about exposures at a firing range and other reports about high worker lead exposures at a Los Angeles lead battery recycling plant, operated by Exide Technologies Inc.  The information on high lead exposures wasn’t referred to CalOSHA for enforcement. The bill would have required that the health department notify Cal/OSHA within five business days anytime it learned that a worker’s blood test showed high lead levels and then require CalOSHA to initiate an investigation within 3 days.

The California Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, arguing that lead exposures may be the result of non-workplace exposures. OK.

Some Good News: Living Wage in New York

But don’t go slit your wrists yet. There is some good news:

For years, the three main airports that serve New York City have been the site of one of the country’s biggest fights over the minimum wage. A Republican governor and airline companies were pitted against Democratic officials and labor leaders over how much to pay workers who clean planes, load luggage and perform many other duties.

On Thursday, the campaign ended in victory for as many as 40,000 airport workers who are now on a path to earning at least $19 an hour, the highest minimum wage target set by any public agency in the country. The pay increase, which was approved unanimously by the commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, will raise the wages of tens of thousands of workers over the next five years.

“This is going to be the highest targeted minimum wage anywhere in the country,” said Hector J. Figueroa, president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents many of the workers. “That’s a significant breakthrough.”

Where there’s organizing, where there are unions, there is hope.

One thought on “Cheer Up: More Bad News”
  1. There is some good news. It is not in the interest of slaughterhouses today to hurt their workers indiscriminately. There is an extreme shortage of workers, partly because Americans don’t like working in these places. Some companies are recruiting prospective employees from outside our borders and are putting them up in hotels, shuttling them back and forth to facilities via taxi, just to keep lines running. It is a huge investment. They cannot afford to abuse them and kick them out the door on a whim. There is a perception that there is an endless supply of workers, so if one gets hurt, they are kicked out and easily replaced. This is far from the truth.

    Speeding up a line can cause quality issues that could far outweigh the benefit of speeding it up, ie recalls. And there is so much turnover in these plants…with so many newer workers, one sometimes can only run so fast. It is not as simple as someone getting the go-ahead from USDA, so the now the supervisor walks over and cranks up the machine.

    What is a much bigger issue for the workers than line speed? …the pressure put on these facilities, internally and externally, to maintain OSHA recordable rates at a certain level. Do what is right for the employee, liberally give them give them modified duty and time off, and one’s recordable rate would go through the roof. So, these outfits have to walk a fine line between doing what is right for the employee and maintaining a reasonable recordable rate. It is an extraordinary pressure and safety professionals in this industry waste an incredible amount of time managing cases instead of working on proactive stuff.

    Why so many cases? It is very tough, manual work, that forces one to use muscles not normally used. The vast majority of individuals new to the industry go through a very difficult time, even on a formal work hardening program. Oftentimes they ask for modifications of duty and/or time off because of it, and then the games begin. Do what is intuitively right, ie tell the employee to take some time off and one would have an extraordinary number of lost workday cases. So, our current definitions of recordable injuries forces that industry into playing a lot of games with numbers.

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