The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is one of those federal agencies that lies quietly in the background. It’s not one for making waves. It’s more like bench scientist who minds her own business in the laboratory. But this week, NIOSH blew its top and created some waves.
In a pointed letter to the head of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), NIOSH director John Howard, MD, said that FSIS was misinterpreting a NIOSH report released last month. The report presents the findings of a NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) performed at a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in South Carolina. Workers in poultry and meat processing perform thousands of repetitive motions on each shift at an extraordinary pace. The HHE set out to assess musculoskeletal injuries before and after proposed production line changes. USDA hoped the results would squelch the objections of poultry workers and their advocates (myself included) to its plan to “modernize” the poultry slaughter inspection process. One part of the “modernization” would be allowing the plants to increase line speeds from 140 birds per minute (bpm) to 175 bpm. USDA has been asserting that increasing line speeds will not be detrimental to the poultry workers’ health.
As soon as the HHE report was made public, FSIS was spinning it to advance their “modernization” rule. FSIS Administrator Al Almanza offered his spin on March 27 on a USDA blog. He claimed that an “increase in evisceration line speed was not a significant factor in worker safety,” and “slowing the evisceration line speed was not among [NIOSH’s recommendations.]” Not only are those statements incorrect, but Almanza also failed to mention that for some workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant, line speeds actually decreased.
FSIS’s misrepresentations of the HHE caught NIOSH’s attention. The agency’s director responded with a pointed letter. Howard writes:
“The FSIS Administrator’s blog entry stated that NIOSH ‘…made several recommendations to improve worker safety at this facility, but slowing the evisceration line speed was not among them.’ This statement is misleading. Line speed affects the periodicity of repetitive and forceful movements, which are key causes of musculoskeletal disorders. Many of the NIOSH recommendations address the design of job tasks to minimize these factors.”
Dr. Howard goes on:
“The Administrator’s blog entry of March 27, 2014 stated that NIOSH found that ‘…the increase in evisceration line speed was not a significant factor in worker safety.’ The truth of the matter is that the HHE Report draws no such conclusion.”
I especially like this:
“NIOSH regrets that USDA/FSIS did not provide NIOSH with an opportunity to review and comment on the Administrator’s blog entry prior to its posting. A NIOSH review could have assisted USDA/FSIS in better understanding the findings from the HHE at the South Carolina poultry processing plant.”
In my 20+ years working on occupational health and safety, I can’t recall a more pointed letter coming out of NIOSH that was directed at another federal agency.
But USDA’s false claims about the NIOSH HHE were not restrained to Mr. Almanza’s blog post. They were repeated in recent statements to Members of Congress. At an April 3 House Appropriations Committee hearing, USDA undersecretary for food safety Brian Ronholm said
“…the NIOSH report also confirms though is that increasing line speed does not have a negative impact on worker injuries.”
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro did not let that misstatement stand. She reminded Ronholm of what NIOSH’s report did and did not say.