Workplace safety experts say a U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to increase line speeds at poultry plants could endanger the low-wage workers who are tasked with sorting and trimming inedible carcasses, a job that used to belong to federal inspectors.
Line workers work elbow to elbow in many cases and struggle to keep up with current line speeds, said Catherine Singley, a senior policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy organization based in Washington. The USDA’s proposal would allow plants to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute.
“To be really clear, the line workers are already at their limit, and so to expect that they’re also going to be taking on responsibilities to pull defective carcasses off the line, and there’s going to be no negative impact on the health and safety of the workers themselves, it’s just illogical,” Singley said. “Something has to give.”
No data exists to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries, said Elisabeth Hagen, the undersecretary for food safety at the USDA. “We would never put forward something that would inadvertently put others in harm’s way,” she said.
As a food safety agency, however, the USDA has no power to regulate the safety of workers in the poultry industry, she said. “We simply don’t have statutory authority,” Hagen said.
In defense of increased line speeds, poultry companies cite Bureau of Labor statistics that show the poultry industry has experienced a 74 percent decrease in its worker injury and illness rates since 1994.
“The poultry industry takes very seriously the health and safety of its workforce,” said Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council. “They are our biggest asset, and we’ve adapted with the times and done a lot of things to protect our workers.”
A recent survey by the council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association found that plants operating at faster line speeds as part of a USDA pilot program are as safe for workers as traditional plants, Super said. Total recordable injury rates in pilot plants were 5.6 per 100 workers in 2009 and 5.3 in 2010, compared with an industry average of 6.1 per 100 workers in 2009 and 5.5 in 2010, he said.
Workplace safety advocates say the numbers of injuries reported in the poultry industry can be misleading, however, because poultry companies report their own injuries to federal officials.
Already poultry workers routinely make more than 20,000 cutting motions a shift, and the work often leaves them with nerve and muscle damage.
In 2008, The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy newspaper, published a series of stories about dangerous working conditions at the North Carolina poultry processor House of Raeford and the failure of regulators to get tough on companies that repeatedly violated workplace safety rules.
In 2006, 20.8 of every 10,000 poultry workers missed work because of musculoskeletal disorders, down from 88.3 in 1996, according to the Labor Department. That 2006 rate would make poultry plants safer than toy stores.
But a study published that same year by researchers at Wake Forest University’s School of Medicine found that the “official” rates reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics understated the rate of injuries suffered by poultry plant workers by 70 percent.
Researchers also have noted a power imbalance between management in poultry plants and front-line workers. The low-wage workforce is made up largely of immigrants, minorities and women, many of whom are undocumented, don’t speak English fluently and are unaware of workplace safety rights.
Under the circumstances, it’s unrealistic to give workers additional responsibilities to sort carcasses, and expect them to pull defective birds off a processing line without fear of reprisal, said Singley, of La Raza.
“The line workers’ livelihoods, their wages, their job security is completely tied to their employer, so the incentive to raise complaints about working conditions and about food safety are just tilted so far against them,” she said. “There are disincentives to complain.”
Singley’s organization has talked to workers who say they can’t keep up with the pace as it is.
One worker named Jorge, who worked as a chicken hanger at a processing plant in Alabama, told the organization that he and three other workers each were expected to hang 64 dead chickens per minute. Because of fast line speeds, Jorge said, “many times I had to dislodge chickens and re-hang them when they would get stuck on conveyer belts and pile up on the tables.”
“Is that what consumers really want for your raw chicken?” Singley said. Franco Ordonez contributed to this report.