OSHA Hears the Voices of Meatpacking Workers

Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened its doors to stakeholders from around the country for an all-day “OSHA Listens” event in its Washington, DC headquarters. The purpose of the event was for OSHA to receive comments and suggestions on key issues facing the agency in order to improve OSHA’s efforts to protect the safety and health of workers. The agency was particularly interested in specific actions it can take to enhance the voice of workers in the workplace, particularly workers who are hard to reach, who do not have ready access to information about hazards or their rights, or who are afraid to exercise their rights.

Stakeholders presented their ideas, suggestions and comments to Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels, Chief of Staff Deborah Berkowitz, Director of Enforcement Richard Fairfax, and Director of Standards Dorothy Dougherty.

Nebraska Appleseed testified on policy changes by OSHA to improve health and safety conditions for meat and poultry workers. Read our testimony and media coverage of the event.

We shared the key findings of our major report released in October 2009 entitled, “The Speed Kills You”: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers, in which we detailed the results of our survey of over 455 meatpacking workers across the State of Nebraska. We found that workers’ greatest concern was the safety risks created by unrelenting speed of work and repetitive motion—a combination of line speed and insufficient staffing on the line. Workers also expressed concerns about high injury rates, supervisory abuse and humiliation, the lack of neutrality of medical staff in the plants, and the denial of reasonable use of the bathroom.

Hundreds of written comments submitted in the surveys presents an upsetting human picture of constant pain, verbal abuse, workers forced to defecate and urinate in their pants on the line, and the extreme toll taken by work conditions endured by thousands and thousands of workers. We invite you to take a moment to read worker’s direct comments on the inside back and front cover of the report.

We presented a number of recommendations for OSHA to improve the health and safety of meatpacking workers, including:

  • OSHA should individually, or in coordination with U.S. Department of Agriculture, create a standard for work speed, including production line speed and an adequate number of workers on the line.
  • OSHA should formulate an ergonomics program standard on repetitive motion injuries for the meat, poultry and food processing industries, in order to focus on the significant risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) confronting employees.
  • OSHA should restore the column on the OSHA Form 300 (Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses) to better identify work-related MSDs. Prior to 2001, OSHA’s injury and illness logs contained a column for repetitive trauma disorders, but the MSD column was deleted in 2003.
  • OSHA should increase inspections of meat, poultry, and food-processing plants.
  • OSHA should strictly enforce its sanitation standard, as clarified in a 1998 OSHA Interpretive Memorandum, which requires employers to make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when they need to do so.
  • OSHA should step up enforcement of its regulations that require work floors be kept clean and dry in order to minimize the serious back injuries that occur from falls.
  • OSHA should ensure that meatpacking workers have adequate equipment, including sharpened knives, to do their job.

In response to Nebraska Appleseed’s testimony, Assistant Secretary Michaels stated that our report was “very well-written” and “provocative.” He said that OSHA will take the report’s recommendations “very seriously.”

We appreciated the opportunity to present our findings at this event and look forward to working together with OSHA and workers in the industry to improve workplace health and safety in the meat and poultry industry.

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