Omaid Zabih is a Staff Attorney with the Immigrant Integration and Civic Participation Program at Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest. Nebraska Appleseed is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law center dedicated to equal justice and full opportunity for all Nebraskans. The mission of Appleseed’s immigrant program is to promote strong, vibrant communities. Prior to Appleseed, Omaid worked as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C. He earned a B.S. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a J.D. from the University of Nebraska College of Law.
For years, high injury rates have distinguished the meatpacking and poultry industry from other industries across the country. These injury rates have been disproportionately high, with the latest official government data reporting that nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses at 5.8 and 7.8 for every 100 workers in poultry and meatpacking plants, respectively. These injury figures outweigh the officially reported injury rates for all of private industry in the U.S., which is pegged at 3.5%.
The frequency and number of all injuries, however, significantly exceed the officially reported numbers in both meatpacking and poultry plants. Comprehensive survey data and extensive peer reviewed research, which demonstrate a much higher injury rate, undermines the reliability of the officially cited numbers from the BLS. One medical study estimated that BLS data on workplace injuries missed between 33 and 69 percent of all injuries, and that the problem has not been remedied by OSHA or the BLS. (Leigh, et al). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently conducted a Health Hazard Evaluation in 2013 of a poultry plant in South Carolina. This extensive study, which analyzed 67 job tasks, interviewed numerous workers, conducted basic nerve tests, and scrutinized company records, found that out of the 301 participants, 42 percent met the “case definition for carpal tunnel syndrome.” Moreover, in 2005, the Government Accountability Office raised skepticism about BLS figures because of the inherent risks risks and type of work associated with meat and poultry plants. (GAO 4). OSHA itself “continues to find some measure of underreporting” in its annual audits (GAO 29).
A number of organizations have performed extensive surveys that also expose official injury rates as being artificially low. Out of the 302 current and former Alabama poultry workers the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed interviewed for its 2013 report, 72 percent “described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness” while working at a poultry plant (Unsafe, 7), and 66 percent of workers noted they had suffered from “hand or wrist pain, swelling, numbness or an inability to close their hands”, which are leading indicators of musculoskeletal disorders caused by repetitive motions (Unsafe 8). Similarly, Nebraska Appleseed surveyed 455 meatpacking workers across five communities in 2008 and found that 62 percent of workers disclosed they had suffered an injury in the previous year. In a 2009 investigative series of poultry plants, the Charlotte Observer found that over half of 41 confirmed injuries had not been recorded by company officials. The most striking example was a South Carolina plant, with over 800 workers, that claimed it went five years without a single musculoskeletal injury.
The pervasiveness of undercounting can attributed to a number of factors. First, OSHA’s narrow standard for recording injuries (29 CFR 1904.7), undercounting by the plants themselves. Second, structural barriers such as the lack of job security, language barriers, and immigration status all prevent workers from disclosing injuries. Third, the work environment fosters deep and wide ranging fear among workers of retribution for reporting an injury. Many workers are uneasy about reporting an injury because it will likely result in retaliation from supervisors. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent report found that among workers surveyed, 66% believed that workers were scared to report injuries, and 78% of those respondents said that fear of being fired was the reason for this hesitance (Unsafe, 13)
Indeed, unsafe and abusive working conditions define the environment of many meatpacking and poultry plants across the country, which prevent workers from reporting injuries and drawing attention to these unsafe conditions such as: verbal abuse and sexual harassment; little to no bathroom and rest breaks; the lack of adequate personal protective and safety equipment; substandard to nonexistent medical care; minimal training; “safety” incentive programs that in reality operate to discourage injury reporting; slippery floors. Nebraska Appleseed’s report showed that workers express strong reservations about their supervisors’ commitment to safety - 76% disagreed that their supervisor applied to the company’s safety policy all the time and 80% disagreed that their supervisor cared about employee safety. (Speed, 36). Furthermore, SPLC’s report found that the apprehension about reporting injuries extends to other workplace problems such as general workplace safety (68%), safety equipment (57%), discrimination (71%), and wages (60%) (Unsafe 22).
- 66% of participants were reluctant or scared to tell employer of injuries and illnesses
- Fear of retaliation (78%)
- Futility of seeking medical treatment (no diagnosis, no cure, no rest, no accommodations)
- Points system deters workers from seeing doctors and resting
- Employer refusal to accommodate injuries or grant rest or transfers
- Limited definition of recordable injury or illness makes it easier not to count musculoskeletal disorders and cumulative trauma disorders
- Employers treat no injuries as “significant” enough to refer for diagnosis
Retaliation for reporting health or safety problems is prohibited by 29 U.S.C. § 660(c) but is rampant in low-wage worksites.
Poultry and meat workers frequently suffer work-related injury and illness.
- Employers discourage workers from seeking medical treatment and refuse to accommodate injuries or grant rest or transfers.
- Workers are often denied bathroom breaks.
- Workers face threats of deportation or firing for speaking out about workplace problems.
Download a pdf of Omaid's testimony here.