Federal investigation reveals plant routinely exposed workers to serious injuries

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.

Yesterday, OSHA issued 11 serious safety and health citations to Wayne Farms, resulting in fines over $100,000. The agency found that one of Wayne Farms’ poultry plants in Alabama exposed workers to dangerous musculoskeletal hazards and serious injuries, and failed to accurately record and manage injuries suffered by workers.

OSHA documented what medical evidence, reports, and surveys have shown for years: the tens of thousands of grueling motions made by meat and poultry workers every shift lead to serious and disabling musculoskeletal injuries, and that official injury rates, based on self-reporting, undercounts the true rate of injuries in these plants. Specifically, OSHA stated that workers who process poultry in the deboning area requires “prolonged repetitive, forceful tasks, often in awkward postures for extended periods” that expose these workers to crippling musculoskeletal injuries. In its citation, OSHA provided a comprehensive recommendation for the plant to recognize, manage, and reduce these types of ergonomic hazards that lead to permanent injuries.

OSHA also cited the plant for not providing protective eye equipment to its employees and identified faults with procedures to ensure safety when the plant’s machinery is in need of maintenance.

What was even more notable about OSHA’s findings was its use of what is known as the “general duty clause.” This clause requires employers to provide workplaces free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause serious physical injury or death. This marked the agency’s first use of the general duty clause for ergonomic hazards in over 10 years.

This is an important step by OSHA to address the crippling injuries that meat and poultry workers face as the result of intense work speeds. Noting the serious injuries, Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said “The outcome of this investigation deepened our concern about musculoskeletal hazards in poultry plants, where employees are at increased risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome and other disorders that affect the nerves, muscles and tendons.”

You can read more about OSHA’s investigation at the Huffington Post and the Birmingham (Alabama) News. Occupational safety and health expert Celeste Monforton wrote a blog post that goes into more detail about the citation, as did Matt Shudtz, a policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform.

You can also read the April 2014 complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of a group of poultry workers that prompted this OSHA investigation.

For years, workers’ safety and human rights groups have been calling on OSHA to implement protections for meatpacking and poultry workers. In September 2013, Nebraska Appleseed, SPLC, and 13 other worker and civil rights organizations petitioned OSHA for work speed protections. And a recent story from The Nation details how Nebraska workers have suffered and continue to suffer under hazardous working conditions.

If federal protections are not put into place, plants will continue to put workers at risk under dangerous workplace hazards. No one should face permanent injuries just for doing their job.

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