Civil rights groups demand formal OSHA response on worker protections

For Immediate Release
December 17, 2014
Contact: Jeff Sheldon
Communications Director, Nebraska Appleseed
Office: (402) 438-8853
Mobile: (402) 840-7289
Kyleah Starling, Southern Poverty Law Center
Phone: (334) 956-8420

Civil rights groups demand formal OSHA response on worker protections

Letter requests written response to 2013 petition demanding safeguards from crippling injuries

LINCOLN — Today, a coalition of civil rights groups sent a letter to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) asking the federal agency for a formal written response to a petition the coalition filed in September 2013 to better protect meatpacking and poultry workers from intense work speeds that cause permanently disabling injuries.

More than a year has passed since the coalition filed a rulemaking petition that urged OSHA to safeguard meatpacking and poultry employees by instituting clear rules protecting them from dangerously high work speeds. OSHA has yet to respond. The lack of a clear and enforceable work speed standard will only continue to place meat and poultry workers at serious risk for permanently crippling repetitive-motion injuries.  OSHA should make clear whether it plans to draft rules to protect these workers.

The coalition’s letter emphasizes the critical need for OSHA to issue work speed standards to protect meat and poultry workers. Currently, only the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates line speed in meatpacking and poultry plants.  The USDA, however, is exclusively focused on food safety, ignoring the vital importance of worker well-being.

“Our coalition hopes that a work speed standard will help OSHA fulfill its mission by providing it with the tools the agency needs to address this serious and pressing safety issue,” said Nebraska Appleseed staff attorney Omaid Zabih. “Currently, OSHA has general health and safety rules for meatpacking and poultry plants, but does not have specific rules to regulate processing line speeds that currently operate at a grueling pace, regularly injuring workers.”

The group’s letter states there is a wide array of evidence from peer-reviewed medical and epidemiological studies, investigative reports, and community surveys that “demonstrates the relationship between excessive work speed and the alarming prevalence of permanently disabling injuries in meatpacking and poultry plants.”

Meat and poultry workers regularly make 20,000 to 80,000 motions per day on the line. This intense work speed frequently leads to debilitating repetitive-motion injuries to workers’ hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, neck, and back. Knife cuts and respiratory illnesses also are commonplace. These high rates of serious and disabling injuries recently led OSHA to take the important step of citing an Alabama poultry plant for numerous health and safety violations, including exposure to hazards that led to these types of musculoskeletal injuries.

“OSHA’s recent citations of an Alabama poultry plant for causing its workers to develop musculoskeletal disorders were a welcome development,” said Michelle Lapointe, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.  “We hope that OSHA continues to look out for worker health and safety in poultry and meatpacking plants.  However, a rule regulating work speed would make OSHA’s work in this area more effective and would ensure more consistent compliance around the country.”

The group’s letter can be viewed here.

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