WASHINGTON – A coalition of labor advocates are urging the US Dept. of Agriculture to reject higher line speeds at poultry processing plants. On Dec. 12, a delegation representing Interfaith Worker Justice affiliates will deliver a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Undersecretary Carmen Rottenberg urging them to keep current line speeds.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GOA) found that 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. For example, the GAO noted that OSHA may not be aware of worker health and safety issues if workers are afraid of retaliation by their employer 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.

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. And 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.

However, the National Employment Law Project, which will participate in an Interfaith Worker Justice press conference at the National Mall, said the GAO report confirms that dangerous working conditions persist in meat and poultry plants.

“The report confirms that the meat and poultry industry, in its quest to keep production lines running at any and all costs, is not only cutting corners on worker safety but further dehumanizing workers by denying them legally required bathroom breaks,” Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project, and a former chief of staff at OSHA, said in a statement following the release of the report. “As documented in the report, workers throughout the meat and poultry industry are being denied the right to use bathrooms at work—and are suffering serious health effects as a result.

“The report also details widespread fear among workers of being fired or punished if they raise safety concerns to their plant management or to government inspectors,” Berkowitz added. “Workers told GAO they feared being punished if they ask to use the bathroom, or if they ask to see the health unit when they are injured.”