Washington, D.C. – Congressman Bennie Thompson and other congressional leaders joined poultry workers today urging the Administration to stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from allowing poultry plants to increase processing line speeds – a decision likely to lead to more worker injuries and threaten consumer safety.
The USDA plans to enact new regulations soon that will increase line speed from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175, despite ample evidence that work speed is a primary contributor to worker injuries. This rule – pitched as an attempt to “modernize” the industry – also would remove hundreds of federal inspectors from the processing lines and replace them with plant workers charged with the responsibility of identifying and removing tainted chicken. There are no training requirements for these workers. The USDA is the only federal agency regulating processing line speeds in poultry plants.
The coalition, led by Thompson (D-Miss.), briefed congressional staff about the dangers of this proposal. Mississippi’s poultry industry directly employs more than 28,000 people. The state produced more than 750 million chickens in 2010, ranking it fourth among all states.
“Increasing line speed not only increases the risk of injury to line workers, but also compromises the health of American consumers,” said Congressman Bennie G. Thompson (MS – 02). With over 28,000 Mississippi poultry workers and millions nationally, the USDA is unnecessarily endangering the lives of millions of Americans. I urge the Administration to move swiftly and stop the USDA from allowing increased line speeds in poultry plants.”
Meat and poultry workers often make 20,000 or more cuts a day. These work speeds lead to debilitating repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Workers also endure knife cuts and respiratory illnesses. A recent Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) survey of 302 current and former poultry workers in Alabama found that 72 percent of the respondents described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness. Alabama is the nation’s third-largest poultry producer.
The SPLC report, Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers, found that workers often attributed their injuries to the already-punishing pace of the line. Some poultry workers have even described having to urinate on themselves rather than anger a supervisor by leaving the line to use the restroom.
“The hard-working people who produce our food should be protected from dangerous conditions,” said Tom Fritzsche, SPLC staff attorney and report author. “Many of these workers are fearful of losing their jobs if they report injuries or ask for safer working conditions. This silence enables companies to hide injury rates that are far higher than what they publicly report.”
There are no set of mandatory guidelines to protect the health of poultry workers. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) does not regulate line speeds or enforce safety rules tailored for the unique dangers of poultry plants. OSHA has yet to respond to a formal petition filed last summer by some coalition members that urged the agency to create work speed protections in the poultry and meat industries.
“We are deeply concerned about the implications of the proposed policy on the safety and well-being of workers and consumers,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the senior vice president for policy and advocacy. “Furthermore, the proposed elimination of federal inspectors from the processing lines can potentially lead to a significant decrease in the quality of chickens in our supermarkets and restaurants and on our dinner tables.”
During the coalition’s visit to Capitol Hill, poultry plant workers provided first-hand accounts to members of Congress and their staff about the dangers of their workplace. These workers included Salvadora Roman, who worked for 17 years at a plant in Decatur, Ala., deboning chickens.
“My hands couldn’t take the fast line speeds anymore,” she said. “They would fall asleep when I was working on the line. The pain was so bad that it kept me awake at night.”
Roman was fired after she missed work for a doctor’s appointment for the injuries she sustained working at the plant.
“Across the country, meat and poultry workers are suffering permanent injuries from impossible work speeds,” said Omaid Zabih, Nebraska Appleseed staff attorney. “The poultry rule expands a pilot program that has had truly worrisome outcomes in both poultry and pork plants. This is a dangerous direction for poultry and pork could be next.”
The prospect of hundreds of federal inspectors being replaced by workers fearful of angering their employers by slowing the line to remove a contaminated bird has raised concerns at Food & Water Watch.
“This step is not only bad for workers, it’s terrible for consumers,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy organization. “It’s the first step in deregulating meat inspections, which means fewer consumer and worker protections. If this USDA rule is implemented, weaker beef inspections will follow.”
Removing federal inspectors from poultry plants also creates a conflict of interest by allowing plants to oversee their own safety inspections.
“Safer food begins with safer workplaces,” said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, who noted that 2-in-5 poultry workers in this country are Latino. “Instead of advancing a proposal that would make already dangerous workplaces even more hazardous, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez must work together to improve worker safety in the poultry industry.”
Stopping the USDA proposal is also a matter of protecting workers’ human rights.
“Poultry workers are suffering because of the fast line speeds; already it’s a dangerous job with 20,000 repetitive cutting, pulling, grabbing, or hanging motions per shift,” said Minor Sinclair, U.S. director of Oxfam America. “If approved, this rule would increase that by 25 percent. It’s unacceptable that our government would sanction working conditions that threaten the safety of our food and the basic human rights of American workers.
Other organizations opposing this rule include Center for Effective Government, Center for Progressive Reform, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Coalition of Poultry Workers, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center and Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Western North Carolina Worker Center.
Apreill Hartsfield, Southern Poverty Law Center, (334) 782-6624; [email protected]
Darcey Rakestraw, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-2467; [email protected]
Mary Babic, Oxfam America, (617) 517-9475; [email protected]
Joseph Rendeiro, National Council of La Raza, (202) 776-1566; [email protected]
Jeff Sheldon, Nebraska Appleseed, (402) 438-8853, (402) 840-7289; [email protected]
Sherri Jones, Coalition of Poultry Workers, (601) 899-2327