WASHINGTON – 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 food safety in Nebraska and across the country.
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 in meat and poultry plants. 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 Rep. Thompson (D-Miss.) and including Nebraska Appleseed, NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, Oxfam America, Food & Water Watch, and others briefed congressional staff about the dangers of this proposal today.
“Increasing line speed not only increases the risk of injury to line workers, but also compromises the health of American consumers,” said Rep. 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.”
“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 meatpacking and pork could be next.”
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.
Last September, Appleseed joined 14 other civil rights groups in submitting a rulemaking petition to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create a rule regulating safe work speeds. To date, OSHA has not responded to the petition.
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,” Roman 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.
Removing federal inspectors from poultry plants also creates a conflict of interest by allowing plants to oversee their own safety inspections.
“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.”
For interviews with Nebraska workers who can speak to the dangers of high work speeds, please contact Nebraska Appleseed Communications Director Jeff Sheldon at (402) 438-8853 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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.