USDA gives us 30 more days to tell it why 175 birds-per-minute line speeds will take a toll on poultry workers

Gabriel Thompson writes today in The Nation about a summer job he had a few years back, working on the assembly line at a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant in Alabama. The chickens flew by on hooks at 90 birds-per-minute as he sliced and cut the meat non-stop. It didn't take long for him to meet co-workers who suffered from painful and debilitating musculoskeletal disorders caused by the high-speed, repetitive work. Thompson writes:

"One was unable to hold a glass of water; another had three surgeries on her wrists; a third had discovered, after a visit to the doctor, that her thumb joint had almost disappeared after twelve years of line work. She told me her doctor had taken a vein from her leg and wrapped it around her thumb in an attempt to replace the missing cartilage."

Whether its chicken, turkey, beef or pork, workers in industrial meat processing will tell you, "the line speed kills you."

Earlier this year, the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a proposed rule entitled "Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection" (77 Fed Reg 4408.) In the very first paragraph of the notice, the agency explains this proposal was developed in response to President Obama's edict about regulations, specifically, to seek out "outmoded" and "excessively burdensome" rules and repeal or replace them with more streamlined ones. The change proposed by USDA involves shifting the responsibility for examining and sorting poultry carcasses with obvious defects from USDA inspectors to the assembly line workers. USDA says this will allow federal poultry inspectors to focus more attention on other areas of the production process.

The Obama Administration's regulatory czar Cass Sunstein suggests this is a win-win for the government and the industry. It will save taxpayers $40 million per year because there will be fewer USDA/FSIS poultry plant inspectors. It will benefit the industry with $1 Billion over five years. That's because the poultry processing plants will be able to increase the assembly line speeds up to 175 birds-per-minute, and that means....more chicken flying off the lines and onto store shelves! More product, more profit, more money in the poultry industry's pockets. The industry loves it. "We commend USDA" says the American Meat Institute.

But wait....whoa ..slow down a minute. What about the workers' lament: "the speed kills you??" Who's taking into account the costs of more injuries, more disability, more pain, more healthcare for the workers who bear the brunt of the rapid-fire line speed? What did OSHA have to say about how this USDA proposal might affect workers' health and safety?

I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know anything about this USDA proposal until a couple of weeks ago. It should have been on my radar screen. It wasn't until I read a blog post last month by law professor Rena Steinzor's that I was alerted to it. In "The Age of Greed" Steinzor, who serves as President of the Center for Progressive Reform, (CPR) calls this anti-worker proposed rule a poster child for Mr. Sunstein's crusade to eliminate costly regulation under President Obama's Executive Order 13563. She writes:

"The USDA, complying dutifully with the order, has dug deep into the garbage can where abandoned deregulatory proposals go to die, producing a despicable plan regarding poultry processing plants, already among the most hazardous workplaces in the nation."

She suggests that this obscure office in the White House was high-fiving the "benefits" of this deregulatory action and must have short-circuited its own policies and procedures for interagency review. Surely the Labor Department's and Secretary Hilda Solis' emphasis on vulnerable workers, and [work] environmetal justice would have something to say about a proposal that would disproportionately affect the health, safety and well-being of minority workers.

Thanks to Professor Steinzor's clarion call, the workers' rights community joined with the public health, consumer, food safety and other advocacy communities to urge the USDA to scrap this ill-conceived (and worse) proposal. Some of us wrote to the agency last week and urged it to withdraw this proposed rule. If USDA/FSIS refused to withdraw
it, we urged the agency to extend the comment period for at least six months. This would allow us to gather additional evidence to demonstrate the grave consequences that increased assembly line speed would have on poultry plant workers.

In the Federal Register today, USDA announced a 30-day extension of the comment period on the proposed rule. It's not the withdrawal we requested, but it gives us a few more weeks to build the case on why 175 birds-per-minute is uncivilized. It will give us a few more weeks to explain to the public why any proposed regulation that promises $1 Billion in benefits to the corporate poultry industry, on the backs, shoulders, wrists and hands of low-wage poultry plant workers is outrageous and unjust.

Yes, we need a modern food safety inspection service that doesn't rely on inspectors using only their eyes and noses to detect fecal matter. But the answer is not taking inspectors off the assembly lines and allowing companies to run their conveyors as fast as they can and expect the poultry plant workers to just keep up. That's just *#^%-up.

I can't close with anything better than this from Gabriel Thompson:

"....in a country obsessed with food, we still fail to appreciate the people whose work brings the food to our table. While the government has responded to public demands for better inspection processes, tens of thousands of poultry workers may soon find their already dangerous job becoming much more so, with almost no public debate. We consider a food product safe if it's something we can feed our children. But what if producing the food does so much damage to the hands of workers that they are unable to hold their own?"

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These concerns about the safety of poultry workers if the poultry companies are allowed to significantly increase production lines need to be forwarded to President Obama so he can tell his Secretary of Agriculture not to tell poultry companies that it is acceptable to increase production speeds until OSHA and NIOSH have determined what speeds are safe for workers.

By Industrial Hygienist (not verified) on 27 Apr 2012 #permalink

I agree. I'd add however that a study examining the impact of line speed on worker health must have a robust study design and a large enough number of subjects (workers) for there to be enough statistical power to detect an effect. Nothing would be worse for worker health, here or abroad, if the government publishes a hastily designed and conducted study that is not capable of detecting an effect. A study of this importance should be overseen by a FACA committee comprised of occupational health experts who have experience conducting epi studies in the population as well as poultry plant workers themselves or their representatives. Moreover, significant funding and time must be invested in it.