Meat processing, with near 500,000 workers in the U.S., remains one of the most dangerous industries, with injury rates above those in the broader manufacturing sector.
WASHINGTON (Talk Media News) – Working at a slaughterhouse is safer than it was a decade ago, according to a new report from Congress’s investigative arm, but the U.S. Labor Department needs to increase oversight to get an accurate picture of risks faced by meat and poultry workers.
In a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Wednesday that followed an initial investigation in 2005, the agency found that workers are still suffering from the same injuries and illnesses — including sprains, cuts, burns, amputations, repetitive motion injuries and skin disorders — but at a lower rate.
The GAO said their evaluations “suggest that more injuries occur than are reported” for a range of reasons.
Sanitation workers who clean machinery in meat plants, some who have suffered amputations from on the job accidents, are not always counted as injuries because they work for third-party contractors.
In other cases, on-site medical staff have encouraged workers against reporting of injuries and illnesses, and in “an effort to maintain a clean safety record and avoid recording injuries in their [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] logs, some plant health units may repeatedly offer first aid treatments.”
The report highlights that employees are often immigrants or refugees, with 28.7 percent being foreign-born non-citizens in 2015 compared to about 9.5 percent of all manufacturing workers. This population will play down injuries to protect their livelihoods and jobs, which paid an hourly mean wage of $12.50 per hour in 2014, according to the GAO.
And less visible conditions, or those that worsen over time such as carpal tunnel syndrome, may go unreported, the report said. One study referenced in the report estimated that one-third of poultry workers suffer from carpal tunnel.
Workers rights advocates point to the report as evidence of widespread worker abuse, compounding on past reports from human rights organizations.
A report published in 2009 by Nebraska Appleseed pointed to injuries caused by repetitive motions. The Department of Agriculture allows chicken processors to move 140 birds through the assembly line per minute.
And, earlier this month Oxfam found that poultry workers are often denied bathroom breaks during the workday, leading some workers to wear adult diapers.
“GAO shines a much needed light on the issue of injury rates among poultry and meat packing,” said Sarah Rich, a staff attorney with the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “… The GAO’s finding in this new report establish that the [industries] repeated attempts to discredit the findings of of independent reports of worker conditions in the plants are not to be trusted.”
Meat processing, with near 500,000 workers in the U.S., remains one of the mosts one of the most dangerous industries, with injury rates above those in the broader manufacturing sector.
Rates declined from an estimated 9.8 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2004 to 5.7 in 2013, but remain higher than the wider manufacturing sector rate of injury at 5 cases per 100 workers, according to the report.
The North American Meat Institute, a trade group, defended the industry’s record on worker safety in a statement. It said that a 2012 study by OSHA found that while manufacturing industries “clearly…had a higher non-compliance rate than other industries,” the problem of under reporting injuries is not “as alarming” as the OSHA leadership had forecasted.
“Worker safety has been a key priority in the meat industry over the last 25 years and the positive results of our efforts are clear,” said North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter. “There is always room for improvement and we will look closely at the GAO recommendations to see how they can best be implemented in the industry.”
Tyson, one of the world’s largest processors and marketers of meats, said they are “continually focused on improving safety” for employees.
“We work to prevent injuries and illnesses, but if they happen we want them detected early so they can be immediately addressed,” said Gary Mickelson, Tyson’s Director of Public Relations.
The North American Meat Institute pointed out that “the meat and poultry industry [didn’t] even make the cut” in a Time analysis in May that reviewed the top 20 most dangerous jobs in America based on work place fatalities. The industries that made the list included logging workers, taxi drivers and electricians.
The Department of Labor could not be reached for comment Wednesday.