05/22/2012

Proposed USDA Rule Change Puts Profits Before Worker Safety

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants a new rule that will dramatically increase processing line speeds at poultry plants – a rule that will only ruin the lives of more plant workers in an industry where hundreds of thousands of workers already suffer painful, debilitating injuries.

They are plant workers such as Oscar.

Oscar was a poultry worker, bending 40 sets of chicken wings every minute – or about 18,000 wings in an eight-hour work day. The work was extremely repetitive and Oscar worked hard to keep up with the fast pace – all the while doing significant damage to his body, especially his hands.

Oscar suffers from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome as a result of the fast repetitive movement. He can no longer use his hands the way he did before his job in the poultry plant. He also suffers from back pain because he was forced to stand during his eight-hour work days with very few breaks. When his hands could no longer keep up with the fast pace, the company disposed of Oscar. They fired him.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is deeply troubled by the short-sightedness of this rule change and the devastation it will wreak on some of our nation’s most vulnerable workers. That’s why we recently filed public comments asking the USDA to withdraw its proposed rule.

The USDA’s rule proposes a new procedure for inspecting processed poultry. Currently, highly trained USDA inspectors on the processing line determine which birds are not safe for consumption and should be discarded. The new proposed rule hands that inspection over to processing plant employees.

The benefit of this shift in inspection responsibilities, according to the USDA, is that it allows poultry processing companies to increase line speeds from the current maximum of 70 to 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. The burden will be felt by the workers – a large number of them immigrants – who report to work every day at these vast poultry processing plants.

The USDA cynically claims its rule will “modernize” poultry production. This so-called modernization, however, is a century’s leap backward to the days Upton Sinclair described in The Jungle – a time when meat processing workers were treated as nothing more than expendable production machines to be discarded when they break. The USDA wants to help poultry mega corporations like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride put profits ahead of people – faster production at the expense of worker safety.

At current line speeds, poultry processing workers stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder as birds zip by on high-speed mechanized lines where these workers prepare them for dinner tables across the country. With a knife in hand, a worker may hang, cut, gut or slice more than 100 birds in a single minute – one minute of a workday where they repeat the same process for eight hours or more.

It’s already grueling work. And, for these workers, it comes at a high price: These workers experience repetitive stress and other injuries at rates far higher than virtually every other occupation.

Even the federal government agrees. According to the U.S. Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA), 300,000 poultry workers suffered reportable (generally severe) injuries in the decade between 2000 and 2010.

Imagine what will happen if the USDA gets its way and the processing lines start moving even faster.

Remarkably, the USDA, concerned primarily with food safety, hasn’t consulted with the OSHA or any other agency charged with ensuring worker safety. In fact, in the 49 pages of the Federal Register explaining and presenting the new proposed rule, only one paragraph discusses worker safety. And that lone paragraph proposes only that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health conduct a study of the worker safety implications of the new rule – a study that cannot be completed before the USDA expects to implement the rule.

At the very least, the USDA should withdraw the proposal until a thorough study on the matter is completed.

The agency’s responsibility to find out what increased line speeds will mean for worker safety seems to be overshadowed by its excitement about the boon this rule will create for its well-funded friends. The USDA has estimated that the faster line speeds will mean an additional $259 million in annual profits for the companies that own these factories.

Sadly, the pursuit of more profit will cost many more workers their health. We may never know the full extent of the harm because immigrants, who make up a large portion of this industry’s workforce, often are reluctant to complain about their work conditions, fearful that to do so could cost them their jobs.

This proposal by the USDA is just another example of public policy that allows businesses to be built on the backs – and the misery – of vulnerable workers. It’s another example of lawmakers and regulators failing to reform policies that tolerate the exploitation of immigrants eager for work. It’s the same mindset that allows H-2 guestworkers’ visas to tie them to a single employer, no matter how awful the exploitation.

As we’ve seen recently in other sectors of the economy, allowing an industry to regulate itself is a recipe for disaster.

The USDA should not allow line speeds to increase without a serious examination of the threat it poses for workers. We cannot sacrifice their health and safety so a small number of companies can boost profits. It is unconscionable.

The SPLC will continue to fight to protect these workers.

Workers like Oscar help feed the nation. We owe it to them to protect their safety.