Poultry industry says it’s being “framed as poster boy for unsafe workplaces”

The poultry industry must have its head stuck in the chicken coop. With Thanksgiving nearly upon us, the industry is trying to convince the public that poultry-processing plants are great places to earn a living. In just about a week, they’ve issued two written statements insisting they have stellar records on workplace safety. Tom Super, VP of communications for the National Chicken Council, wrote on Nov. 22 at the MeatingPlace blog about recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on workplace injury rates. He noted that the case rate for all reportable injuries in illnesses in 2012 in his industry was 4.9 cases per 100 full-time employees. (The case rate for all private sector workplaces was 3.4)  Super wrote:

“You’re more likely to get injured or become ill selling an RV to Cousin Eddie than you are working in a poultry processing plant.  …And it’s as safe mowing the fairway on the 3rd hole or working the omelet station at the country club champagne brunch as it is to work in a poultry processing plant.”

Well before we all do the chicken dance to celebrate the poultry industry’s safety record, let’s have a reality check.

First, if one looks more closely at the BLS data, you’ll see something telling. Out of 1,066 six-digit NAICS industry codes reported in the BLS injury data, poultry processing is on an illustrious list. It is one of the 17 industries (out of that 1,066) highlighted because it has the highest reported rate of injuries that require workers to be on restricted duty or transferred from their regular tasks. That speaks to the severity of the injuries suffered by poultry-processing workers.

Second, OSHA considers poultry-processing establishments a high-hazard industry subject to its site-specific targeting program. Remember, OSHA is a grossly under-resourced agency which is only able to conduct inspections in just one percent of the nation’s workplaces. Being on OSHA’s inspection list tells us another something about conditions for poultry workers.

Finally, and perhaps most important, worker safety researchers, the press and others have demonstrated time and again the rampant under-reporting by poultry-processing firms of employee injuries and illnesses. Studies of hospital and medical data and workers’ compensation claims have repeatedly found much higher injury rates than those reported by the BLS in its annual survey of occupational injuries and illnesses (SOII). The results come from a sample of employers’ self-reported data on work-related injuries and illnesses. Numerous studies have found that many employers violate injury reporting requirements. The validity of the BLS SOII is a matter that anyone relying on the data should take into account.

The most recent example of under-reporting in the poultry industry comes from an investigation by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of a South Carolina poultry plant. Just a few months ago, the researchers reported that 42 percent of the poultry workers had medical evidence of repetitive motion disorders. To no one’s surprise, the employer did not have a single case of these chronic injuries recorded on its OSHA injury log. That’s the data source used by BLS in its annual survey.

After the poultry industry boasted in another statement about the recent BLS report on its injury rates, several groups shot off a letter to Labor Secretary Tom Perez. (BLS is part of the Labor Department.)  They wrote:

“BLS’s publication of data from employers known to undercount injuries and illnesses allows employers to mislead the public. Worse yet, both USDA and the industry are using the BLS data to justify, in part, the USDA’s plan to alter poultry processing inspections. USDA’s plan, if adopted, would have serious detrimental health consequences for poultry workers. The prevalence of musculoskeletal injuries among meat and poultry workers is excessive, and USDA’s proposal will only make the matter worse.”

The poultry industry obviously takes offense at the attention it’s been receiving from the human rights, worker safety and food safety communities about the heavy toll of repetitive motion injuries in its workforce. In Mr. Super’s blog post he wrote:

“What this data show, is that it’s high time the poultry industry stop being framed as the poster boy for dangerous and unsafe workplaces.”

I asked Tom Fritzsche of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for his reaction to the National Chicken Council’s comparison of injury rates among poultry workers with employees at country clubs and in retail stores. (SPLC advocates on behalf of poultry-plant workers, the majority of whom are Latino and African-American women. SPLC investigated working conditions in poultry plants and released the report “Unsafe at These Speeds” earlier this year.)  Fritzsche said:

“It takes some real audacity for the industry to say ‘it’s as safe mowing the fairway on the 3rd hole or working the omelet station at the country club champagne brunch, as it is to work in a poultry processing plant.’  We didn’t think to do a comparison study of Alabama country club workers to see how the workplace hazards they face compare to those in poultry plants. But if we had asked country club workers if they would trade jobs with poultry workers, we’d likely get a  100 precent consensus in the ‘no’ column.”

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, The Pump Handle will have another post this week that exposes more about working conditions in turkey processing. Lizzie Grossman will provide a first-hand account from an Arkansas turkey-plant worker and a retired USDA inspector.