The meat processing industry is an extremely hazardous occupation and one of the more common locations of on-the-job injuries we see. In the mid-1980s, the poultry processing industry put an emphasis on reducing work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Musculoskeletal disorders include injuries to nerves, tendons, muscles, and supporting structures of the hands, arms, neck and back.
Despite this emphasis on reducing musculoskeletal injuries in the meatpacking setting, the incidence rate of occupational injuries reported in the industry has remained high. In fact, when examined in 2011 and 2012, the meatpacking industry accounted for more than five times as many musculoskeletal injuries as the average U.S. industry.
The rate in poultry plants of carpal tunnel syndrome was more than three times the national average in 2011 and seven times the national average in 2012. Despite these elevated numbers, it is likely that the true number is even higher.
Studies suggest that the Labor Department’s data is likely skewed due to a large number of foreign-born meat processing workers and their reluctance to report workplace injuries due to fear of retaliation or deportation. It is estimated that nearly 30% of meat-processing workers are foreign-born. Information collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that two-thirds of chicken processing employees will suffer significant work-related injuries.
Recently, the Trump administration cleared the way for chicken processors to increase processing line speeds. Line speeds were capped at 140 birds per minute; however, the National Chicken Council recently lobbied and petitioned the Food Safety and Inspection Service to increase the line speeds to 175 birds per minute. In January of 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that chicken processors could apply for waivers to increase the line speed from 140 birds per minute to 175. Higher line speeds are cause for concern. The increase in line speeds applies to the automated portion of the slaughter process, called the evisceration line. Although the poultry industry contends the increase in line speed will not have an effect on worker safety, the data suggests otherwise.
At the 140 bird per minute line speed, workers perform the same repetitive motions 20,000 to 30,000 times per daily shift. Often that repetitive motion requires workers to use knives to debone portions of the chicken. This increase will undoubtedly result in more injuries due to cuts but also increases the risk of the employees developing carpal tunnel.
Unfortunately, the increase in poultry processing line speeds likely opens the door for other meat processing industries to experience similar increases. The Trump administration likely will relieve similar line speed restrictions amongst the pork processing industry as well. The USDA has proposed lifting caps on hog processing speeds which are currently capped at 1,100 hogs an hour. These changes are directly related to worker safety and will subject employees to more hazards. The meat processing industry is already an extremely hazardous occupation. More measures should be taken to ensure safe work environments. However, the Trump administration clearly values profits over worker safety.
The Occupational Safety and Health Admiration (OSHA) has taken an active role in trying to reduce musculoskeletal injuries in the meat processing industry. On top of the countless code sections employers must follow to promote worker safety, OSHA has also written extensively on various best practices for the industry. OSHA encourages all meat processors to actively work to reduce injuries by implementing plans following their best practices guidelines. These measures include providing proper training to all employees, from management positions, engineers and safety directors all the way down to laborers.
OSHA encourages employers to identify problems and risk factors and develop goals and plans to mitigate those hazards. Finally, OSHA also encourages employers to monitor injuries and implement changes where needed to decrease injuries. Despite OSHA’s continued efforts, it is likely that the Trump administration’s actions to increase production will increase the overall numbers of injuries in the meat processing sector.
If you have questions, contact Evan Allen, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section. Evan handles workplace injury and death cases for the firm.
Sources: OSHA.gov and civileats.com
This story appears in the October 2020 issue of The Jere Beasley Report. For more like this, visit the Report online and subscribe.