Senator Gillibrand introduces “Safe Meat & Poultry Act,” recognizes hazards for plant workers

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced last week the Safe Meat and Poultry Act (S. 1502).  The bill would require USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to take new steps  to decrease foodborne pathogens, including authority to compel producers to recall contaminated meat and poultry.

The legislative text is 73 pages long, but one short paragraph caught my eye: a provision addressing the serious health and safety hazards to which meat and poultry workers are exposed.  It’s an issue that we’ve written about many times (e.g.. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here).  It remains in the forefront because USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack continues to insist on a plan to “modernize” poultry slaughter.  In it, poultry producers will be able to significantly increase line speeds posing an even greater risk to the health of workers employed in their processing plants.

S. 1502 will do a little to address that problem.   Section 402 provides for an ongoing assessment of occupational health for workers in meat and poultry plants.  In particular, it would require USDA to cooperate with CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Health & Safety (NIOSH) and OSHA, to prepare a biennial report which includes:

  • information on trends in occupational health and safety in federally inspected meat and poultry establishments;
  • recommendations for improving the work environment for both the employees of the plants, as well as federal inspectors who also work day-to-day in these plants; and
  • findings and recommendations for an appropriate maximum line speed in establishments that slaughter and process meat and poultry, to ensure, in the Secretary of Labor’s determination, worker safety.

In 2009, Nebraska Appleseed issued its report “The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers.”  In a survey of 455 workers from five Nebraska communities excessive line speed was the most commonly expressed concern about the safety of their workplaces.   Similarly, a report released this year by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Alabama Appleseed,  “Unsafe at these speeds: Alabama’s poultry industry and its disposable workers,” described the findings of interviews with 302 poultry workers.  The punishing speed of the production lines was the workers’ greatest concern.  More than three-quarters of the workers said line speed made their work dangerous and was the dominant factor for them in developing musculoskeletal disorders.  The authors note:

“If  the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.”

The authors of those reports and the meatpacking and poultry processing workers they represent reacted this way to Senator Gillibrand’s bill:

“We’re very happy to see that Senator Gillibrand has brought attention to important and often-overlooked consumer and worker safety issues,” remarked Tom Fritzsche with SPLC.  “The information sharing and recommendations that this legislation would produce are a step in the right direction, but should not be the only step.  America’s meat and poultry workers need action to slow down lines now.”

Earlier this month, SPLC, Nebraska Appleseed and other workers’ rights groups filed a petition with USDA and OSHA urging the agencies to issue a regulation on line speed.  They eagerly await the agencies’ response.