By David Michaels
Meat factories continue to be among the most dangerous places to work in America. According to a devastating article in the Dallas Morning News, “thousands of illegal immigrants gravitate toward meatpacking plants in places like Cactus, Texas” where each year more than one out of every ten workers gets injured carving meat on fast moving conveyer belts. The line speed requires exhausted workers wielding the sharpest of knives or hooks to make hundred of cuts an hour. OSHA inspectors are rarely seen in these factories.
One worker at the Swift & Co’s Cactus, Texas plant described it:
They’re going to make the chain longer and raise it. … You can hear the people screaming because they’re exhausted. On Friday, you could hear them screaming because it was 2:37 [p.m.] and the meat wouldn’t stop coming.
The astronomical injury rates in meat factories are compelling evidence of the abject failure of OSHA to address even the most obvious and preventable of hazards.
The crippling effects of meat packing work is not a secret – every few years, similar exposés appear (from The Jungle to Fast Food Nation, with many, many in between), yet conditions improve only marginally at best. Jordan Barab at Confined Space has written about this many times (here, here and here).
In 1990, OSHA issued voluntary ergonomic guidelines for the meatpacking industry. Then Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole (now Senator R-NC) announced: “These painful and sometimes crippling illnesses now make up 48 percent of all recordable industrial workplace illnesses. We must do our utmost to protect workers from these hazards, not only in the meat industry, but all U.S. industries.” In 2001, the last year in which the information was collected, a meat packing worker was thirty times more likely to develop an ergonomic injury than the average private sector worker.
Why do we still allow meat factories to maim large numbers of workers? OSHA’s voluntary, unenforceable guidelines have remained just that – voluntary and therefore unenforceable – because when the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, it passed numerous pieces of legislation aimed at blocking any mandatory OSHA standards that would have forced the meat industry to slow the lines down and protect the workers. I’ll come back to that sordid history in another post soon.
One reason that things aren’t getting any better is that meat factory workers are even more powerless than they were two decades ago. Meat companies have opened plants where no union exists, and, in many of the older, unionized plants, a large portion of the workforce is immigrant (more than 90% in some plants), many of whom are undocumented.
Some workers do try to protect themselves, but their avenues of redress are few, and dangerous in themselves. The Dallas Morning News article reports that 26 former Swift & Co. workers brought suit for wrongful termination, saying they were let go as a result of filing workers compensation claims after being injured on the job.
Undocumented or not, most immigrant workers won’t complain or sue, afraid to lose their jobs.
OSHA inspectors visit these plants regularly – but they simply will not inspect for the ergonomic hazards that are crippling the workers. Thanks to a Republican Congress and now six years of the Bush Administration, there are no ergonomic standards they can enforce.
In plain sight of workers doing some of the most hazardous jobs in the country, the inspectors look only for the simplest of safety violations – like electrical hazards and blocked exits. They then issue a small fine and leave with the ability to say they’ve inspected.
If there is a stronger argument for rethinking the way OSHA now operates, please let me know.
Coming Soon: Why there is no OSHA Ergonomics Standards – The Sordid History
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.