Georgia congressman resurrects bad idea, poultry workers threatened with faster line speeds

Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) says U.S. poultry companies “are being handcuffed” by a rule that set the maximum processing line speed at 140 birds per minute. Collins wrote this week to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and asked him to consider raising the maximum speed to at least 175 birds per minute. He says it’s a step toward

“removing red tape and needless regulatory obstacles holding back our economy.”

Allowing poultry processing plants to increase line speeds above 140 birds per minute was a bad idea when the Obama administration’s USDA proposed it, and it’s still a bad idea.

Workers in poultry processing plants suffer from a staggering high number of amputations and hospitalizations, and the rate of illnesses, such as repetitive motion injuries, is seven times the national average. Increasing line speeds in poultry processing plants will make a bad situation worse for workers.

In his plea to the USDA Secretary, Rep. Collins asserts that

“potential risk to workers’ health from faster production lines…are not rooted in physical evidence.”

The congressman is mistaken. Evidence includes investigations by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on musculoskeletal injuries among poultry processing workers. I’ve written previously about these investigations, but to recap:

  • Among 191 workers at Amick Farms’ poultry processing plant in Hurlock, MD, 34 percent had carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and 76 percent had evidence of nerve damage in their hands and wrists.
  • Among 375 workers at a Pilgrim’s Pride facility in South Carolina, 42 percent of workers had CTS.

These are two plants that requested the NIOSH assessment. Other plants have not done so.

Researchers at medical schools and universities have also found high prevalence of CTS and other musculoskeletal injuries among poultry processing workers (e.g. here, here, here.) Repetition (i.e., line speed) is a significant risk factor for these types of injuries.

Cong. Collins says in his letter that he takes “worker safety very seriously.” I take him at his word and suggest that he meet with some of the poultry workers that I know. He would hear first-hand about their working conditions and the hazards they face each day. They would describe the steps their employers already should be taking to prevent injuries. They would explain the trouble they face when they seek care for their work-related injuries and even the problem of being able to use the bathroom when nature calls.

On top of that, the congressman will also hear that increasing line speeds in poultry plants is a bad idea.