“It’s a house of pain in there.” A major new report on worker and food safety

unsafe_at_these_speedsToday, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed released Unsafe at These Speeds, a major new report that exposes the dangers poultry plants pose to consumer and worker health — dangers likely to intensify under proposed regulatory changes for the industry.

Modeled after Nebraska Appleseed’s 2009 meatpacking safety study, The Speed Kills You, this new study provides the next round of substantial evidence of the effects of punishing work speeds in the U.S. meat and poultry industry.

Based on more than 300 interviews with workers from numerous plants, the report reaffirms the perilous working conditions that workers have documented for years, including high injury rates and the prevalence of crippling hand and wrist injuries that come from thousands of repetitive motions.

It further highlights inadequate access to medical treatment, abusive supervisors, a lack of rest or bathroom breaks, and a climate of fear that prevents workers from speaking out about workplace problems or reporting injuries.

The report also details the current inadequate legal and regulatory protections that workers have under OSHA.

Most important, the report noted that 78% of workers pointed to the unrelenting speed of the processing line for making them feel unsafe, making their work more painful, and for causing injuries.

Making matters worse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is poised to implement a new regulation in April that would allow poultry companies to increase the speed of plants’ processing lines. This proposal also threatens consumer safety by removing hundreds of federal inspectors from processing lines and burdening plant workers with the responsibility of removing tainted chicken from the line. As the Southern Poverty Law Center notes: If the intense work speed and climate of fear prevents workers from making requests as simple as going to the bathroom, how will they be able to assert concerns related to food safety?

Some workers interviewed in the new report described being disciplined by supervisors for slowing down the line when they suffered injuries. Workers also reported incidents of other workers being threatened or fired for asking to slow down the line. Nearly 99 percent of workers felt powerless when asked about having any opportunity to influence line speed.

Here are some powerful quotes from workers that were included in the report:

“I was afraid that I would lose my hands completely…I am 43 years old. I have four kids, and I have to support a family. And the only thing I know how to do for work is with my hands. And I can barely use them now.” – Carlos, who had to quit his job because of the pain

“Your body will seize up, but that doesn’t matter. They won’t let the line slow down.” – Mark

“It’s a house of pain in there.” – Kendrick

Here’s a harrowing, and regrettably, all too common story from the report that centers around a former poultry worker named Juan [pictured here]:unsafe_at_these_speeds2

[He] worked for six years in a poultry plant…primarily in stacking jobs that required him to lift, carry and stack two 80-pound boxes of chicken a minute. While lifting a box of chicken, he became dizzy, slipped, and fell to the floor. He was told to go right back to working despite being in great pain. Juan’s back pain worsened and the swelling became constant. He was unable to sleep. When he was finally able to get X-rays, they revealed that he had two lumbar vertebrae fractures from the fall. He was eventually fired. Juan has yet to recover. His employer never paid for any medical treatments.

Among the report’s recommendations is to urge the USDA to withdraw the pending rule that would increase line speeds even further. The report also calls on OSHA and federal policymakers to take meaningful steps to slow down the processing lines and protect worker and consumer safety. You can read the full report here.

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