Americans eat more than 50 pounds of chicken each year, on average, making it the country’s most popular meat.
But while Americans enjoy the luxury of this relatively inexpensive and always available food, tens of thousands of low-paid workers who produce this bounty are paying a steep price.
They spend long hours keeping pace with relentless poultry processing lines and endure grueling conditions that leave many with painful and, often, permanent injuries from the stress of countless, repetitive motions required to turn chicken carcasses into consumer products. They are treated by their employers as a resource that can be tossed aside once they are used up or broken beyond repair.
Yet, they’re the reason Americans can count on finding boneless, skinless chicken breasts at their local supermarket. They’re the reason a fast-food joint can churn out an endless stream of chicken nuggets or a platter of Buffalo wings.
While the poultry industry has been built on the backs of these workers, they enjoy few legal protections, and federal regulations do little to protect their health and safety. In fact, a new rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will make their jobs even more dangerous by increasing the speed of poultry processing lines up to 175 birds per minute.
But reforms can help protect poultry workers and improve their working conditions.
The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) should stop the epidemic of repetitive motion injuries in poultry processing plants by limiting line speeds and the number of repetitions required of workers; by enforcing rights to bathroom and other rest breaks; and by requiring other ergonomically sound practices. The USDA should withdraw its proposed rule that would allow companies to increase line speeds.
State lawmakers can also take action. In 2003, Nebraska enacted a Meatpacking Workers Bill of Rights. Among other rights, this state law included the right of workers to have proper tools, the right to be free from discrimination, and the right to a safe workplace. Currently, all Nebraska employers within the meatpacking industry must follow the bill of rights. Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas, the three leading poultry-producing states, are not among the 27 states that have job safety and health standards approved by OSHA as being at least as effective as federal standards.
It is the responsibility of policymakers to protect the hard-working people who produce our nation’s food. The current system may provide greater profits to the nation’s large poultry companies, but it relies on systematic exploitation of workers. It must be reformed. Detailed recommendations are proposed on the following pages.
There are five major ways lawmakers can stop this health and safety crisis in the poultry industry:
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture should stop its proposed increase of maximum line speeds.
- OSHA should affirmatively regulate line speeds and the number of birds per minute each worker may be required to process.
- OSHA should issue comprehensive ergonomics regulations to reduce musculoskeletal disorders arising from repetitive motion in the poultry industry.
- Alabama should enact a Poultry Workers Bill of Rights to protect this large sector of its workforce. This should include reform of the workers’ compensation system to ensure universal access for injured workers and recognition of workers’ rights to be free from hazardous conditions.
- Federal and state lawmakers should enact stronger anti-retaliation protections and prohibit practices that obstruct workers’ access to medical treatment. Workers should be empowered to sue their employers to change hazardous health and safety conditions.
The following are detailed policy recommendations for Alabama and the federal government:
- Mandate a decrease in poultry processing line speeds.
- The USDA should withdraw a proposed rule that would increase the maximum permitted line speed to 175 birds per minute.
- OSHA and the USDA should create a standard, enforceable, maximum line speed that adequately protects worker safety.
- Reinstate a federal ergonomic standard.
- OSHA should adopt a clear ergonomic standard requiring poultry processing plants and other meatpackers to provide enhanced training, job rotation, ergonomically sound tools, a slower work pace and other measures needed to prevent musculoskeletal disorders. Currently, OSHA only recommends that employers meet an ergonomic standard.
- A federal ergonomic standard should be comprehensive enough to eliminate the possibility that a state could use weaker worker safety standards as a competitive advantage against other states seeking to attract poultry processing plants.
- Strengthen federal standards and enforcement to protect workers from injuries and from retaliation when they report safety hazards.
- OSHA should increase the number of random, unannounced workplace inspections and the number of inspectors.
- OSHA should implement mandatory – not recommended – follow-up inspections for noncomplying companies. It should require a more intensive examination of a noncomplying company’s history to find systemic problems that could trigger additional mandatory inspections. OSHA should conduct inspections throughout a corporation once it has identified a life-threatening hazard at one of its establishments.
- Congress should amend OSHA’s statutory authority to conduct inspections and investigations, 29 U.S.C. § 657, to require investigations in cases of deaths or serious injuries.
- Congress should amend OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements, at 29 U.S.C. § 657(c)(2), to require reporting of all injuries and illnesses, especially of certain categories of common injuries currently exempt as a practical matter from recordkeeping, such as musculoskeletal injuries and severe lacerations. Musculoskeletal injuries and lacerations are common injuries among poultry processing workers, but under current law, a company does not have to report injuries unless they involve deaths, loss of consciousness, transfer to another job, or restrictions of work or motion.
- In poultry plants, whether to transfer an injured worker to another job or set restrictions on her motion or work is often a decision made by the employer, which means that many injuries, including even some very serious ones, fall through the reporting cracks and go unrecorded. Requiring employers to record all injuries and illnesses would permit easier identification of hazards and analysis of trends, would empower workers to insist on treatment where necessary, and would reduce incentives for employers to resist work restrictions and job transfers where they may be needed.
- Strengthen enforcement of anti-retaliation laws, and prohibit threats of deportation. These measures are needed to protect a worker’s employment and prevent a worker from feeling threatened or intimidated when reporting an accident or injury. Employers should provide greater training to managers and supervisors to ensure understanding of anti-retaliation laws.
- Vigorously enforce and enhance the rights of workers to organize a union and bargain collectively for health and safety guarantees, including line speed and the number of workers on the line. The government should ensure that information about how to organize a union is made readily available to workers.
- Comply with international labor and employment standards.
- Protect the rights of all workers to access workers’ compensation, judicial remedies for violations of their rights, and healthy and safe workplaces.
- Follow Nebraska’s lead and enact a Meatpacking Workers Bill of Rights.
- The bill of rights should ensure clear communications between employer and employees regarding employee rights to workers’ compensation, employer retaliation limits, access to information in employees’ own language, and ergonomic safety initiatives.
- Alabama should require that this information be distributed in multiple languages and in a manner that reaches all employees.
- Alabama should appoint a coordinator to oversee the implementation of the bill of rights.
- Strengthen state health and safety laws to improve working conditions.
- Launch initiatives that include broader access – including electronic access – to information such as plain language standards and explanations of how to enforce them, and to government and employer information for measuring and ensuring workplace safety.
- Create a private right of action for employees so they may sue to stop dangerous health and safety conditions, especially retaliation against workers who complain of health and safety problem.
- Reform the workers’ compensation system.
- Repeal the 1992 statutory amendment that made it nearly impossible for workers suffering from musculoskeletal and repetitive motion injuries to obtain workers’ compensation coverage of their medical care and the time they must be away from work.
- Ensure that employees are aware of the workers’ compensation system, how it works and their rights within it. Employers should be required to hold information sessions for employees in a language they understand – both as a part of their initial orientation and at least annually. This information should include the right of workers to select their own physician.
- Workers should be protected from retaliation for filing a claim.
- Provide workers with enhanced workers’ compensation
benefits when their employers have willfully violated OSHA safety standards.
- Increase the time workers have to report injuries for workers’ compensation coverage, especially repetitive motion and musculoskeletal disorders. Currently, workers have only five days to report injuries in many cases.
- Increase penalties for employers who fail to comply with workers’ compensation policies, especially those with repeated violations.
- Increase workers’ compensation benefit caps so workers are able to maintain a suitable standard of living, especially when benefits provide the sole source of income until the worker recovers.
- Increase workers’ compensation outreach and education efforts by community organizations, unions, and state agencies and departments. This information should be provided through materials workers can understand.