USDA questioned about line speed impact on worker, food safety

Meatpacking and poultry plant workers often suffer crippling injuries because of high work speeds and repetitive motions.

Meatpacking and poultry plant workers often suffer crippling injuries because of high work speeds and repetitive motions.

As the USDA continues to push its proposal to allow increased line speeds in poultry plants – with dangerous implications for food and worker safety – a Washington Post article raises new questions: Did USDA mislead the public, Congress about risks for poultry workers?

Just the week before, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued an unusually strongly worded letter questioning USDA’s “misleading” characterization of the risks to worker safety.

USDA has insisted that its proposed new poultry rule allowing already dangerous line speeds to increase from 140 birds per minute up to 175 will not adversely affect workers, and has claimed a new NIOSH worker safety evaluation of one poultry plant as supporting evidence. But as NIOSH clearly reiterates in its letter, its evaluation tested a plant in which birds processed per minute per worker stayed the same, and nonetheless found “an alarming 42% prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) in exposed workers.” This means that nearly half of the plant’s workforce would have to deal with long-term, crippling injuries and pain for the rest of their lives.

NIOSH’s letter emphasized that line speed affects the number of “repetitive and forceful movements, which are key causes of musculoskeletal disorders.”

This latest round of questions follows an August GAO report questioning USDA’s data on the food safety impact of the proposed model as well. In the report, the GAO said the USDA is going forward with its proposed new poultry rule without the proper data collection and evaluation needed to prove that food safety would be improved. The GAO questioned how the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service could use its flawed evaluation of the pilot project as the basis to propose expanding the privatized inspection model across the entire poultry industry.

Despite the clarification from NIOSH and criticisms from other organizations, the USDA has thus far refused to change its characterization of the report. You can learn more about this by reading this detailed post by Celeste Monforton, a public health expert who has been following this issue closely. NIOSH has also posted its worker safety evaluation, a summary of it, and its letter to the USDA here.

Take action!

As the conversation and questions around the proposed poultry rule continue, it is important for the White House and Congress to hear from you that the speed of work in meat and poultry processing is already too fast and this rule would further risk the health and lives of meat and poultry workers, including those in Nebraska.

Take action to stop the proposed poultry rule. Call the White House at (202) 456-1111 and tell the Administration the Poultry Rule is a senseless danger to workers’ and food safety. Then, ask your U.S. senators to slow work speed in meat and poultry plants.

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