WASHINGTON – Injury and illness rates in the meat and poultry industry declined from 2004 through 2013, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report on workplace safety and health in the processing industry. However, more data is needed to address what the agency calls “continued hazards” in the meat and poultry industry.

Data from the US Dept. of Labor show that injury and illness rates in the meat and poultry industry declined from an estimated 9.8 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2004 to 5.7 in 2013. Groups representing the poultry industry said the trend of declining injuries and illnesses represented advancements in worker safety.

“We are pleased to see the report emphasizes the fact that injuries and illnesses have decreased dramatically in the poultry processing industry over the past several years,” the National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation and the US Poultry & Egg Association said in a joint statement.

 “The incidence of occupational injuries and illnesses within the poultry sector’s slaughter and processing workforce has fallen by 81 percent in the last 20 years and continues to decline according to the 2014 Injury and Illness Report released by the Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),” the groups said. “In fact, poultry processing’s injury and illness rate of 4.3 is on par with all manufacturing jobs (4.0) and is decreasing at a much faster rate.  When comparing apples to apples, poultry processing’s rate is much lower than all food manufacturing in general.”

US poultry processors have focused its energies on injury and illness prevention, especially musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome. Interventions to address MSDs include implementing ergonomics and medical intervention principles, and working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop guidelines that further help protect poultry industry workers.

“While the past 20 years has seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers and rates of injury and illnesses, the poultry industry will continue to seek new and innovative ways to protect our workforce — including data collection and record keeping…” the statement concluded. 

The GAO report noted that more needed to be done to address hazardous conditions the agency cited in a 2005 report, including tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders, exposure to chemicals and pathogens and traumatic injuries from machines and tools. The report noted that injury and illness rates in the meat and poultry industry remain higher than rates for manufacturing overall.

More data is needed, the report stated, but the DOL faces challenges collecting data on injury and illness rates for meat and poultry industry workers. Some of those challenges include workers and employers underreporting injuries and illnesses and the lack of some detailed data such as injuries and illnesses that result in a worker taking days off from work.

“These limitations in DOL’s data collection raise questions about whether the federal government is doing all it can to collect the data it needs to support worker protection and workplace safety,” the GAO said in its report.

To address these issues, the GAO recommended that the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, working together with the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, to develop and implement a cost-effective method for gathering more complete data on musculoskeletal disorders.

Also, to better understand injuries and illnesses sustained by meat and poultry sanitation workers:

  • The Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health and the Commissioner of Labor Statistics should study how the agencies could regularly gather data on injury and illness rates among sanitation workers in the meat and poultry industry.
  • The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should engage NIOSH to conduct a study of the injuries and illnesses sanitation workers experience, including causes and how injuries and illnesses are reported. Given the challenges to gaining access to these workers, GAO said, NIOSH may want to coordinate with OSHA to develop ways to initiate this study.

Read the full report here.