A Labor Day look at activism along the food chain

As Celeste and I were putting together The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2012 – Summer 2013 (released on Labor Day), we noticed that many of the year’s developments in occupational health and safety occurred in various parts of the food chain. From fields and silos to poultry plants to fast-food restaurants, workers are speaking up about unsafe and unjust conditions, and demanding improvements. Here are some of the highlights:

Agricultural hazards in the news: Investigative reporters have done a terrific job delving into the unsafe conditions agricultural workers face. The Oregonian’s Anthony Schick addressed child farm labor, reporting that it’s more widespread than statistics indicate, and that agricultural work can be especially hazardous to children. Two investigations – one from the New York Times’ John M. Broder, the other from NPR’s Howard Berkes and the Center for Public Integrity’s Jim Morris – focused on one of agriculture’s deadliest hazards: grain bins, or silos, where corn or other grains can act like quicksand and suffocate workers. A Center for Public Integrity-NPR analysis of OSHA data on 179 grain entrapments from 1984 – 2012 found initial OSHA fines were reduced by nearly 60%. PBS FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell Bergman’s harrowing “Rape in the Fields” investigation brought viewers a look at the sexual assault many migrant women say they feel they must endure in order to provide for their families.

Progress and possibilities for farmworkers: The farmworker-based human rights organization Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) celebrated another victory in October 2012 when Chipotle Mexican Grill became the 11th company to join CIW’s Fair Food Program. Another project that makes farmworkers partners in bringing good food to our tables is the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), which involves workers, growers, and retailers in the effort to produce better fruits and vegetables. And as Farmworker Justice released their report on how current US pesticide use endangers farmworkers, farmworkers and their supporters traveled to Washington, DC to call on Congress and the EPA to improve protections for agricultural workers exposed to pesticides. (Elizabeth Grossman covered both the Equitable Food Initiative and the call for improved protection for farmworkers exposed to pesticides for The Pump Handle.)

Meanwhile, the Senate’s passage of an immigration reform bill, which includes legal status options for current undocumented workers and a worker visa system with penalties for employers with willful health-and-safety violations, offers hope to migrant workers and their advocates. At the moment, however, the House of Representatives isn’t close to voting on this or any other immigration-reform legislation.

Adding to evidence on poultry-plant hazards: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to promote a proposed poultry rule that would allow poultry slaughterhouses to dramatically increase the speed of their production lines, but recent reports confirm that poultry workers already face substantial on-the-job hazards, and that USDA’s proposal would increase risks. A Health Hazard Evaluation by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) researchers at one South Carolina poultry plant found most employees reported multiple musculoskeletal symptoms, and 42% had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome.

USDA poultry inspector Stan Painter has raised concerns about inspectors’ ability to spot signs of feces or disease when carcasses whiz past at a rate of 175 birds per minute. (see Kim Krisberg’s post here). And inspectors and poultry workers fear that the antimicrobial chemicals substituting for better visual inspections. One inspector who voiced concerns about chemical exposure was 37-year-old Jose Navarro, who died after his lungs began hemorrhaging; the Washington Post’s Kimberly Kindy reported on his death and on related health concerns from poultry-plant workers.

(Two days after our report’s publication, the Government Accountability Office released a report criticizing USDA for relying on insufficient safety evidence in creating their proposed rule; the Washington Post, Center for Progressive Reform, and National COSH have covered the report.)

Food service workers mobilize: Following a Black Friday strike by Walmart workers, 200 fast-food workers in New York City walked off the job in November as part of a campaign to win better wages and the chance to organize a union without retaliation. In April and May, low-wage retail and fast-food workers participated in walk-outs and other actions, with the support of community and faith leaders who walked workers back to their jobs at the end of the strikes. In July 2013 low-wage workers from seven cities – Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New York City, and St. Louis – joined forces to walk off their jobs for one-day strikes during a week of action. Workers from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and KFC were among those participating in labor-community-clergy alliances including New York Communities for Change, Jobs with Justice, Action Now, 99 Pastors, and Citizen Action of Wisconsin. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) provided financial and technical support and helped train organizers in each city. You can read The Pump Handle’s coverage of the strikes here, here, and here. The largest yet day of action, involving workers in nearly 60 cities, occurred in late August as our report was in press; Salon’s Josh Eidelson has the most in-depth coverage.

The financial struggles of workers in full-service restaurants are also gaining wider recognition, thanks to the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)-United. Co-founder Saru Jayaraman released her book Behind the Kitchen Door (Cornell University Press) on February 13, or 2/13 – a date that has special significance in the restaurant world, where the hourly wage of most tipped restaurant workers has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991. Jayaraman was featured in the National Journal and appeared on several TV shows, including Real Time with Bill Maher, the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, and UP with Chris Hayes.

The complete report is available here, and we welcome comments below about these and other important developments in US occupational health and safety over the past year.

Past posts in this series:

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