OSHA denies petition for slower line speeds

by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – Citing a lack of resources, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) denied a petition to create work speed protections for workers in the meat and poultry industry. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Nebraska Appleseed submitted the petition in 2013.

In a letter to the groups, OSHA said “the Agency’s limited resources do not allow for this comprehensive analysis and rulemaking effort.”

“We are disappointed that OSHA has failed to step up and protect poultry and meatpacking workers from permanent, debilitating workplace injuries,” said Sarah Rich, SPLC staff attorney. “The workers who prepare the food that so many of us eat should not have to sacrifice their health for a paycheck. They deserve better.”

The US Department of Agriculture plans to implement a new poultry inspection system, in which company employees in most chicken and turkey slaughter plants would be responsible for checking eviscerated carcasses for visual defects, such as bruising and sorting out those that are unlikely to pass federal inspection.

The new system gives turkey processors the option of increasing line speeds. Line speeds at chicken plants remain at 140 birds per minute. But opponents of the new inspection system argue that rapid line speeds have caused musculoskeletal disorders in workers. In 2013, SPLC released a report titled Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers. Nebraska Appleseed documented similar issues in a 2009 report called The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers.

“Despite OSHA’s denial, there is still an urgent need for a clear and enforceable work-speed standard that protects 500,000 poultry and meatpacking workers across the country,” said Omaid Zabih, Nebraska Appleseed staff attorney. “We should not ignore the vast amount of medical and epidemiological literature, reports, surveys and newspaper accounts that all connect permanently disabling repetitive motion injuries to excessive work speed.”

But the poultry industry has refuted claims that faster line speeds result in more injuries to workers. The National Chicken Council and US Poultry & Egg Association released a white paper challenging the SPLC's claims.

"There is no evidence in the pilot program over the past 15 years to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries, Tom Super, vice president of communications for the NCC, said at the time. "In fact, those employees working in second processing, such as cutters and deboners, would not be affected at all. Line speeds in those areas would not be increased as a result of this program.

"The rule would affect first processing and evisceration, which today are largely automated," he added.
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