Worker safety measures make way into new USDA poultry inspection rule

When USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week a new regulation governing the poultry slaughter inspection system, he didn’t just have food safety on his mind.  Throughout his press call, Vilsack said things like “we heard concerns about line speed,” and “we listened to concerns about line speed.” Vilsack explained that they abandoned their plan to allow certain poultry processing plants to increase line speeds from 140 birds per minute (bpm) to 175 bpm. As TPH’s Kim Krisberg wrote on Friday, that’s good news for some poultry workers who are already at risk of crippling repetitive motion injuries at current line speeds.

The National Chicken Council is not pleased with USDA’s decision to forego the line speed increase in this new inspection system.

“It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing that politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute.”

What the chicken industry’s statement doesn’t say is what they think about the worker safety measures that made their way into the USDA rule.

First, there’ll be a new required poster. The estimated 200 poultry processors who adopt the new poultry inspection system (NPIS) will be required to display a new OSHA poster with information on symptoms of occupational injuries and illnesses, and statements about a worker’s rights to report these health conditions to their employer without fear of retaliation.

Second, there’ll be an “attestation” by employers.  Poultry processors operating under the NPIS will be required to “attest” annually to USDA that they have a program to “monitor and document any work-related conditions” of their employees. The attestations will be provided annually to OSHA. The program that they’ll be attesting to have in place must include:

  • Policies to encourage early reporting of symptoms of work-related injuries and illnesses;
  • Assurance that the establishment has no policies or programs intended to discourage the reporting of injuries and illnesses;
  • A notification to employees of the nature and early symptoms of occupational illnesses and injuries, in a manner and language that workers can understand, including the above-mentioned poster; and
  • Routine monitoring of injury and illness logs, nurse and medical office logs, workers’ compensation data, and any other injury and illness information available.

What poultry workers want to know is how and by whom will these new requirements be enforced. Can OSHA enforce a USDA regulation? Will OSHA be able to throw the book at a firm that falsifies its attestation?

Third, there’s also a provision in the USDA regulation which reiterates that establishments are required to comply with all applicable laws, including OSHA’s general duty clause. Will this provision in a USDA regulation give OSHA some new legal leverage to protect poultry workers from on-the-job hazards?

Fourth, USDA says that OSHA recommends that poultry processors implement an injury and illness prevention program with the following components: management leadership, worker participation, hazard identification and assessment, hazard prevention and control, education and training, and program evaluation and improvement. USDA adds:

[It] “expects that a prudent establishment would have such a program in place.”

What poultry workers want to know is in what way does the OSHA recommendation, or USDA’s reference to “prudent establishments,” compel their employers to adopt such a program?

Fifth, the preamble also says that USDA will improve training for its inspectors so they are better able to recognize serious workplace hazards. USDA inspectors will be encouraged to make referrals to OSHA using the safety agency’s 1-800 number.

What poultry workers what to know is how this training and referral system is different than what is outlined in a memorandum of understanding between OSHA and USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which dates back to 1994. One of its key objectives was to:

“institute new procedures for meat and poultry inspection personnel to refer to OSHA serious workplace hazards affecting plant employees.”

Finally, USDA’s preamble says:

“OSHA will be paying close attention to poultry slaughter establishments.”

I’m sure it took some effort by the Labor Department to convince USDA to insert this worker safety language into its new poultry inspection regulation. The Labor Department officials who made it happen must intend for the measures to be more than just words in a Federal Register notice.  Poultry workers hope so, too.