OSHA proposed serious and repeat violations yesterday to Wayne Farms for a variety of safety hazards, including those that led to musculoskeletal injuries among the company’s poultry processing workers. By my calculation, it was the first time in more than a decade that the Labor Department used its “general duty clause” to cite a poultry company for ergonomic hazards.
OSHA conducted the inspection in response to a complaint filed six months ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of a group of workers. The complaint described the harsh working conditions in the Jack, Alabama plant, and also provided specifics on management’s retaliation against workers who are injured or complain about hazards. The workers involved in filing the complaint should feel vindicated because OSHA’s citations validate their assertions.
OSHA’s investigation involved staff from its Mobile, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia offices, as well as the agency’s top-notch ergonomist and occupational medicine physicians. They note that workers in the plant are required to perform:
“prolonged repetitive, forceful tasks, often in awkward postures for extended periods of time.”
Those tasks include cutting wings, cutting shoulders, sawing wins, pulling skin, and pulling tenders.
The OSHA team also identified gross deficiencies in the company's lockout/tagout procedures. Such safeguards can help to ensure that workers were not caught-in or struck-by equipment when it is being cleaned or repaired. That’s bad enough, but Wayne Farms was cited by OSHA in 2011 for this same violation at one of the company’s other poultry processing plants. For the repeat infraction, OSHA has proposed a $38,500 penalty.
Besides validating the workers’ complaints, OSHA’s citations corroborate what researchers and worker advocates have been saying for decades: Injury rates based on employer self-reporting are works of fiction. OSHA assembled evidence against Wayne Farms on the ways in which the company gamed the system for recording injuries. OSHA’s Mobile, Alabama area director said,
“By failing to report injuries, failing to refer employees to physicians and discouraging employees from seeking medical treatment, Wayne Farms effectively concealed the extent to which these poultry plant workers were suffering work-related injuries and illnesses. And as a result, it reported an artificially lower injury and illness rate.”
I have no doubt that other poultry and meatpacking companies use the same dishonest practices to intentionally deceive the Labor Department and the public about working conditions in their plants. If you haven’t already, you should dismiss any assertions made by the National Chicken Council and other industry groups that poultry slaughtering plants are safe and worker injury rates low. That goes for the safety award given to Wayne Farms in 2011 for its “outstanding safety performance.” The company touts its behavior-based safety program called “WorkSAFE” which
“focuses on helping employees identify unsafe behaviors and remain conscious of their environment and potentially dangerous situations.”
What a bunch of baloney. Workers at Wayne Farms know what causes their injuries. It's not their “unsafe behaviors.” It’s all about the incessant repetitive motions, fast work pace and deficient equipment in their jobs. These are all things that the company controls, not the workers. The "unsafe behaviors" are the company's not the workers'.
For me, some of the most powerful language in the OSHA citations is the long list of feasible options the agency offers Wayne Farms to fix the ergonomic hazards. For workers in the chicken deboning area, OSHA explains that the company could:
- increase the recovery of affected body parts through task rotation during the work shift (rotation to tasks without continuous use of a knife, scissors or forceful grip);
- increase recovery time through implementation of mini-breaks, increase cycle time for each task, establish a rotation on a daily basis between departments to increase recovery time (such as rotation between debone and marination);
- provide knives with handles designed for repetitive tasks;
- provide hand tools with textured handles to reduce employee grip force, larger quillons (guard) before the blade to prevent hand from sliding down knife-allowing reduced grip force;
- install mechanical skin removal equipment or provide textured gloves to reduce hand force required in pull skin;
- provide air-assist powered scissors or wing cut;
- position the knife sharpener to minimize non-neutral wrist posture; and
- evaluate employees at each station to determine appropriate work platform height for each employee.
Surely, a firm with more than $1.9 billion in annual sales can afford buying some better hand tools and giving workers rest breaks.
Michelle LaPointe, senior staff attorney with SPLC remarked about the OSHA citations:
“The actions taken by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration go far beyond a company being fined for violations at a single poultry plant,” said Michelle Lapointe, SPLC senior staff attorney. ...This is an industry where workers are forced to work at dangerously fast speeds that cause disabling injuries and often thrown away when they can no longer work.”
In a statement to Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post, Wayne Farms said it is contesting the citations.
OSHA has taken an important step with these citations. It was Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole in the late 1980’s that put citations for ergonomic hazards on the radar screen. Use of the general duty clause was embraced at the time, but largely abandoned over the last decade. Our government has failed to hold poultry companies accountable for the workplace hazards that cripple the hands, wrists, shoulders and backs of workers. I hope these citations are not an anomaly, but a sign of much more attention to the deplorable working conditions in poultry and meatpacking plants.
Does this suggest they might also be suspected of being perhaps a little bit weak on the public health/disease prevention side of the meat packing industry, like cleanliness, and not cooking sick chickens, and not mishandling antibiotics?
Let us not forget the toxic chemicals to which poultry workers are continuously exposed in a variety of components of the poultry industry: e.g., toxins in caustic cleaners and disinfectants, toxins used in pretreatment of dead hens used in feed ingredients, toxins in the scald and chill procedures, and in removal of feathers, as well as chemicals used as additives to extend shelf life of the birds.
When all the companies face is a 5-figure penalty, there really is little incentive to change.
What is needed are larger "suspended" fines. If a company gets hit with a 7-figure fine, but with most of it suspended, to be applied if another related violation occurs. Now they have a large incentive to improve their behavior. Putting in countermeasures to prevent another violation now makes business sense to even the most vile bosses.