Do you want overworked inspectors in charge of your meat's safety?

More than 400 inspectors with the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) worked, on average, more than 120 hours each two-week pay period.    Those were the findings of the agency's Inspector General in an report issued late last month.  Their investigation covered FY 2012, and included field work conducted from November 2012 through February 2013.

FSIS inspectors are assigned to more than 6,000 meat, poultry and egg processing plants in the U.S.  They are responsible for ensuring that the product sold by companies to consumers is safe and wholesome.  These firms process tens of billions of red meat and poultry annually.  With some USDA inspectors working many hours of overtime---not just a couple hours per week, but an average of 20 extra hours each week---can their senses stay sharp and can they do their jobs effectively?

The IG mentioned that overworked employees are more likely to commit errors.  They noted:

"Our analysis showed that one inspector averaged 179 hours, three inspectors averaged over 160 hours, and 14 averaged over 150 hours.   When OIG brought this issue to the attention of FSIS officials, they stated that they were unaware of this fact, and doubted that this extended overtime would negatively affect the agency’s inspectors."

Funny how an organization that calls itself a public health agency, has such little understanding about how the work environment affects people's health, safety, and performance.  We've written before about USDA's insistence that its proposed rule to increase production line speeds in poultry processing plants won't affect workers' health.  Their perspective runs counter to the findings of researchers who've studied musculoskeletal disorders among poultry plant workers.  USDA insists that running production lines at as fast as 175 birds per minute will not take a physical toll on poultry-processing workers, and excessive overtime does not "negatively affect" inspectors.

The OIG disagrees and writes in their report:
"OIG maintains that overworked FSIS inspectors may be risking their own and the public’s health, especially if they are tired or fatigued while performing crucial food safety-related tasks."

"Because of these extended hours, OIG believes FSIS inspectors could have decreased productivity,which might impair their ability to perform functions that are critical to public food safety."

The auditors specifically refer to a report by CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health about the impact of extended work shifts and overtime.  NIOSH researchers analyzed the peer-reviewed literature and found:
"In 16 of 22 studies addressing general health effects, overtime was associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, or increased mortality."
The studies also identified task errors and impaired alertness, which certainly can compromise their performance and thus food safety.  Since NIOSH's 2004 report, more studies on the adverse effects of extended workshifts and overtime have been published.
USDA says it didn't know about the excessive overtime.  It also didn't have a handle on getting reimbursed from the industry for the overtime.   FSIS inspectors are paid from federal coffers for 40 hours per week, with meat and poultry producers picking up the cost of any overtime.  The trouble is USDA's payroll systems do not efficiently function to capture hours worked and bill overtime hours to the appropriate firms.  The shortfall in FY 2012 was nearly $6 million.
To protect public safety on roadway, there are federal limits on the hours of consecutive work allowed for truck drivers.  Most consumers probably don't want overworked inspectors in charge of their meat's safety.

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14 years ago I worked as an FSIS Inspector at a large cattle facility in Kansas and then later at a poultry facility. In both facilities it was common to work 10 hour shifts, 6 days per week. I see that it hasn't changed. Because the USDA can not dictate the amount of hours the facilities operate, only the rate of processing based on the amount of inspectors in the building, the practice will continue. And if the processing line (known as the "chain") breaks you could count on a 12 to 15 hour day. In my humble opinion not only does it affect the inspectors work abilities it also affects their home life. I witnessed to may personal and work issues as a result of the work schedule.

By Dominique (not verified) on 19 Aug 2013 #permalink

Thanks so much for sharing your expert views as a FSIS inspector. You make an excellent point about overtime affecting individual's home life. Just like the injuries suffered by inspectors because of their work, they suffer psycho-social effects because of work schedules and other stressor on the job. It's quite curious that USDA/FSIS can say with a straight face that excessive overtime will not affect the effectiveness and quality of inspectors' work.