GAO: Enhanced meat, poultry worker protections needed

by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – Annual inspections at meat and poultry processing plants have increased, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the US Dept. of Labor continues to face challenges addressing worker safety and health issues in the meat and poultry industry, according to the findings of a study conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO found that:

• OSHA may not be aware of worker health and safety issues if workers are afraid of retaliation by their employer — which is illegal under federal law — for speaking out. “When asked by GAO, workers in five selected states cited bathroom access as a concern and said they fear speaking up at work, where OSHA inspectors typically interview them,” according to the GAO report.

• OSHA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) have taken steps to collaborate on worker health and safety initiatives, but have fallen short in areas such as referrals of plant hazards to OSHA by FSIS inspectors, training of FSIS staff and information sharing.

• FSIS collects information on how to protect the agency’s inspectors from chemical hazards, but it doesn’t have a process to share this information with OSHA or meat and poultry processing plants. Gaps like this can create challenges to protecting workers from certain chemical hazards.

The GAO report included recommendations for addressing these issues. They include conducting additional off-site interviews or other options to obtain information from workers anonymously; updating guidance for employers on how to manage their health units, and making any necessary changes to ensure improved collaboration among relevant federal agencies.

Although the GAO report is calling for enhanced protections for meat and poultry workers, the incidence of occupational injuries and illnesses among poultry industry workers declined 82 percent over the last 20 years and continues to decline, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Dept. of Labor said in its 2016 injury and illness report.

The North American Meat Institute reported that it is safer to work in meat and poultry packing and processing than in soft drink manufacturing, roasted nuts and peanut butter manufacturing, frozen fruit juice and vegetable manufacturing and nursing and residential care facilities.

As part of its research, GAO analyzed OSHA inspection data from 2005 through 2016. GAO also interviewed OSHA headquarters staff and in six field offices; officials at four other federal agencies; worker advocates; and industry representatives. Finally, GAO visited four processing plants and interviewed workers at six sites in five states. GAO last reported on this issue in 2005.

Read the full report here.

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