DOL and HHS Secretaries Should Press USDA to Put Brakes on Poultry Rule that Would Harm Workers' Safety

by Matt Shudtz

In January, USDA issued a proposed rule that would allow poultry slaughter facilities to increase the speed of their slaughter and evisceration lines as part of an effort to “modernize” the slaughtering process.  Today, I attended a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) and asked for the committee’s help in stopping the rule, given its threats to workers’ health and safety.

The gist of the rule is that it would remove most USDA inspectors from the slaughter lines and shift their inspection responsibilities to company employees.  Because these changes would require costly alterations to the lines and potentially increase companies’ food safety liabilities, USDA had to sweeten the pot to entice companies to take advantage of the new system.  So, USDA proposed allowing companies to increase line speeds from an already astounding 90 birds per minute to a dizzying 175 birds per minute, which is predicted to deliver companies added profits of a few pennies per bird.  Of course, in an industry that processes billions of chickens per year, the pennies really add up.

Others have covered the troubling food safety implications of forcing USDA’s remaining inspectors to “inspect” (if you can call it that) 175 birds per minute.

The concern I raised before NACOSH, OSHA’s official advisory committee, is the threats these line speeds pose for the workers who must hang, cut, and trim the birds:

  • Some of the best epidemiological research, out of Duke and Wake Forest, indicates that workers in the plants suffer musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel, at rates 2.5 times greater than their neighbors who do not work in the plants.  That’s at current line speeds.  Speeding them up will only exacerbate the hazards.
  • More immediate injuries like cuts and lacerations are also a concern on the lines.  Again, increasing line speeds is likely to increase the rate of these injuries.
  • The floors of these plants are slick and dangerous.  Slips, trips, and falls are a major concern.

Shockingly, USDA failed to account for these known hazards when it proposed allowing poultry plants to increase their line speeds.  And OSHA never even had an opportunity to comment as the proposed rule was being developed; the usual interagency review process was somehow bypassed. The USDA blithely stated that it would consider “available evidence” of the impact of line speed increases on worker health when it came time to issue a final rule.  The agency proposed getting that evidence from an ongoing study of a plant that is upping its line speed under a different legal authority. 

But that’s not much of a promise at all.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is undertaking a Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) at a poultry processing facility in South Carolina.  There, the plant is simply increasing its speeds, without the other line modifications that would occur under the “modernization” proposal.  The results of the HHE won’t be generalizable across the industry, and since NIOSH has not yet completed its analysis of the plant after line speeds increased, the information most pertinent to the new rule is not available.

To recap: faced with serious worker safety concerns, USDA has not committed to changing the proposal to protect workers.  USDA will review the interim findings of one small investigation in a plant that is not even operating under the protocols that would be allowed under the proposed rule.

The USDA would make a big mistake if it moved forward with its proposal, given the significant impacts on workers’ health and well-being.  NACOSH should urge DOL Secretary Hilda Solis and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to express their concerns to the Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack. They should insist that he put the rule on hold until USDA, OSHA, and NIOSH staff can figure out a way to modernize poultry inspection without putting workers at risk.

[[Update: NACOSH approved a recommendation saying that "NACOSH recommends that the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of Health and Human Services reach out to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to ensure that the draft final poultry slaughter modernization rule not move forward until OSHA and NIOSH staff have opportunities to review and study how the rule impacts worker safety and health and make recommendations on how to address these impacts."]]

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