Public health officials urge USDA to withdraw plan to "modernize" poultry inspection, worker and food safety will suffer

The Obama Administration's quest to appease business interests' claims about burdensome and outdated regulations awoke a giant in the form of the civil rights, public health and workers' safety communities.  From the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Council of LaRaza, to the American Public Health Association and Nebraska Appleseed, the feedback is loud and clear: USDA should withdraw the regulatory changes it proposed in January (77 Fed Reg 4408) which would shift the responsibility for examining and sorting poultry carcasses with obvious defects from USDA inspectors to the assembly line workers. Under this "modernized" system, poultry processing companies could increase line speeds from about 90 to 175 birds per minute.  Advocates from these progressive groups and hundreds of others sent comments to the USDA and Secretary Vilsack explaining why the Food Safety Inspection Service's (FSIS) plan will have grave consequences for poultry plant workers and for food safety.

As of May 31, more than 2,250 public comments are visible in the USDA docket.  I'm highlighting some of them here:

Comments submitted by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project offers testimonials from just a few of the several hundred poultry plant workers their staff has interviewed.

"The vast majority report that the rapid line speeds at which plants already operate have presented constant health and safety hazards and have caused workers to suffer serious injuries, which are often disabling."  One worker explained "I had to bend a pair of chicken wings every three seconds... or about 40 wings a minute, which would come to about 18,000 chicken wings during an 8 hour day or work.   ...While you are working you are completely surrounded and subjected to a pressure to do your job, to bend the wings in a certain way and at a certain speed and if you didn't do it right, they yelled at you.   ...More people will suffer [if the line speed is increased.]"

"SPLC is concerned that the USDA is taking these measures for the sake of "modernization" without due regard for the potential impacts these industry changes will have on workers.  Efficiency of the industry cannot come at the cost of worker's health and lives.  Workers in the industry are particularly vulnerable, as they are often disempowered from coming forward to raise their voices against already difficult conditions in their workplaces."

Comments submitted by the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante reminds USDA that

“these workers are unrepresented by unions, are recent immigrants, and often speak little English.  The poultry workers’ lack of job security and mobility makes them particularly vulnerable to corrupt or negligent employers, and especially in need of strong enforceable federal health and safety standards.  …Given the large body of evidence that working conditions in the poultry processing industry are already hurting workers, USDA should not go forward with its proposed poultry slaughter inspection rule.  While USDA has claimed that worker safety is not within its purview, USDA should reach out and work together with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (CDC’s NIOSH) to develop a comprehensive plan to mitigate hazards and protect poultry workers."

Comments submitted by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) pronounce

"this proposed rule runs counter to what we would expect from an administration with a public commitment to protecting vulnerable workers."

NCLR challenges USDA to develop an alternative proposal in which rigorous oversight of worker health and safety is a central component.  NCLR lays out these facts: Latinos are overrepresented in the poultry processing workforce; the poultry industry's profits are not shared by the assembly line workers; and faster line speeds would exacerbate injuries to workers who already suffer higher prevalence of work-related injury.  NCLR also chastises USDA for a "Act now, ask questions later" approach to the link between worker-injury risk and line speed.  The largest, national Hispanic civil rights group in the U.S. concludes their comments with:

"USDA should completely rescind its proposed poultry slaughter inspection rule."

Comments  submitted by Nebraska Appleseed explain their

"deep concern with the proposal which would significantly increase line speed to the detriment of poultry processing workers and would have very serious ripple effects on families, communities, industry sustainability, and public health.  …A policy that leaves increasing numbers of working adults with permanently disabling injuries is not in the interest of our communities or country.”  The organization refers to a report they issued in 2009 with results of interviews with 455 Nebraska meatpacking workers called “The Speed Kills You.”  “We found that workers’ greatest concern was the safety risks created by the unrelenting speed of work.  …our sister organization Alabama Appleseed has conducted a similar survey with poultry workers in Alabama---also finding a deep concern with line speed and the injuries it causes.  Furthermore, the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights has interviewed numerous poultry workers in Minnesota, highlighting overwhelming concerns with line speed.   ….The grueling and hazardous state of affairs for poultry processing workers will only worsen if the USDA adopts this proposed rule.”

The Center for Progressive Reform submitted comments noting USDA's mighty efforts to estimate the cost-savings for the poultry industry---to the tune of about $250 million per year----while

"inexplicably failing to account for the substantial human health costs that workers in poultry processing establishments will suffer as a result of those increased line speeds."  CPR notes that USDA's deficient regulatory impact analysis is a violation of Executive Orders (E.O.) 12866 and President Obama's own E.O. 13563, including their requirements to ensure federal agencies do not implement programs and policies that will have a "disproportionately high and adverse impact on the health of minority and low-income populations."

One of CPR's greatest contributions to the rulemaking record on this USDA proposal is its explanation of why USDA can't simply pretend that OSHA will be able to handle the worker safety problems created if the new rule takes affect.  CPR writes:

"OSHA’s history with ergonomic hazards, particularly the history of efforts focused on the poultry slaughtering industry, paints a discouraging picture for poultry workers’ future if line speeds are allowed to increase.  OSHA does not have an enforceable regulation that addresses ergonomic hazards in general. “ [Congress and GW Bush overturned it in 2001.]  OSHA’s “general duty clause” could be used to force poultry processing employers to address the hazard of line speed, but as CPR notes, judicial decisions by the OSH Review Commission and federal courts have imposed a high legal burden on OSHA.  “Employers were able to convince the courts, in essence, that OSHA should have to establish a speed at which repetitive motions would be safe for workers.  Since the etiology of musculoskeletal disorders is so complex, pinpointing a ‘safe’ line speed is nearly impossible.   …OSHA will have a difficult time using the general duty clause to protect workers who are forced to work at faster and faster paces because we do not know the pace at which injury rates will be sufficiently minimized.”

Comments from North Carolina Justice Center (here) and the group Student Action with Farmworkers (here) note:

"The high rates of injuries and illnesses related to line speed in the poultry industry make this proposed rule unconscionable.   …Despite the obvious impact that increasing line speeds by such an extent will have on workers, USDA has steadfastly maintained that worker safety is not their concern(emphasis added.)  While worker safety is not the mandate of the agency, it is also not their expertise.  Thus, it would seem appropriate for USDA to reach out to the agency that represents the health and safety concerns of American workers prior to publishing this proposed rule.   …USDA did not contact OSHA or the Department of Labor before sending this proposal to OMB for review.   …This sets an alarming precedent for all agencies that may want to use administrative rulemaking to change policies that could weaken health and safety protections for workers.  This utter lack of transparency and collaboration with the agency of jurisdiction over workplace safety should be discouraged by the Administration and not repeated.”

Comments submitted by Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future indicate:

"the proposed rule addresses a system already faced with challenges presented by its speed, scale and lack of testing and oversight, and proposes to make it faster, bigger, and to drastically alter the manner in which carcasses and poultry meat products are inspected.  ...The gains in efficiency from faster line speeds may come at a cost to public health.   ...We recognize that many inspectors are overworked and the FSIS program is chronically short of necessary resources.  This, however, is exactly why more inspectors (and more resources for FSIS) are needed in poultry processing plants, not fewer."

Comments from OMB Watch say:

"the proposed rule is fundamentally flawed...and should be withdrawn or substantially revised before it is adopted.  [The flaws in the rule] are the results of FSIS' rush to save the already hugely profitable poultry industry money without adequately studying the effects of its proposed rule on the health and safety of poultry workers and the public at large.  ...FSIS should be well awar of the hazards of poultry work.  The poultry workforce consists mainly of recent immigrants, many women.  Average wages in the industry are under $12 per hour.  In real terms, workers are paid less than they were 40 years ago."

“In many instances workers currently must perform as many as 20,000 repetitions of a single defined task each day.  Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2010 show that poultry had a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than all other manufacturing sectors.    …More injuries and illnesses among poultry workers have significant costs: increased workers’ compensation costs for poultry producers; increased social service costs for state and local governments who have to provide Medicaid and welfare benefits to disabled poultry workers; and reduced tax and Social Security payments from disabled workers no longer able to earn a living.”

Public Justice Center's Workplace Justice Project writes about its advocacy for low-wage workers in Maryland, such as its

"long-standing commitment to poultry workers, working with the private bar and organized labor to recover many millions of dollars in lost wages on behalf of chicken catchers and line processors.  We have seen first hand that wage violations go hand-in-hand with poor worker health and safety.  ...Common sense suggests that these changes – reducing the number of inspectors while increasing line speeds – will not only increase the risks of repetitive stress and other worker injuries, but will also increase the threat to public health resulting from inadequate inspections of poultry passing on lines at more than twice the pre-rule speed."

Comments submitted by members of the American Public Health Association (a letter that I signed) also urges the USDA to withdraw its proposal.  The letter refers to several of the Association's policy statements, including one adopted in 2007 entitled “Toward a Healthy, Sustainable Food System,” as well as those addressing work-related musculoskeletal disorders (here, here).  APHA members also criticize USDA for failing to comply with requirements outlined in Executive Order 12866, including mandates to assess direct and indirect costs, distributive impacts, environmental justice, as well as ensure robust public participation and interagency coordination.

In addition, the Executive Director of APHA, Georges Bejamin MD, FACP, submitted a letter on behalf of the Association,  urging USDA Secretary Vilsack to withdraw the proposal from consideration.  Dr. Benjamin wrote:

"The conclusions of the best occupational health researchers who have studied this population is that the line speed should be slowed – not increased to an unfathomable 175 birds per minute – to protect workers from harm."

The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) also submitted comments to USDA to explain the potential dire consequences of the USDA's proposal, both for their own 250,000 members who work in poultry and meatpacking, but also for those who do not have the benefit of a labor union.  Likewise, comments were sent to USDA by the AFL-CIO's Safety and Health Department.

Besides these large labor organizations and diversity of public health and civil rights groups, hundreds of individuals, writing as citizens and consumers took time to submit their own comments on the USDA proposal.   I saw comments submitted by an environmental and occupational health luminary, Ellen Silbergeld, PhD of Johns Hopkins University (here), who wrote:

"the economic rationale for these proposals is unacceptable in that it considers mainly the savings of reducing inspections and increasing line speeds...without examining costs of workplace injury and illness as well as foodborne illness among consumers."

And by an amazing occupational epidemiologist at UMass Lowell's Department of Work Environment, Laura Punnett, ScD who sums up what many, many of us thought the moment we read the USDA's proposal to "modernize" the poultry slaughter inspection process:

"It is deeply disappointing that the proposed rule claims to have public health benefits, when in fact the opposite is far more likely."

The public comment period on the rule ended on May 29, 2012. Now we wait to see if the USDA and/or higher ups in the Obama Administration show us whether they really care about vulnerable workers and their health.



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