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SPLC: New federal poultry rule leaves processing lines unchanged in partial victory for workers

Sweeping new regulations for poultry plants announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today will leave processing lines running at their current speeds – a decision that spares workers from an increase but still forces them to endure the current, dangerously fast pace.

Sweeping new regulations for poultry plants announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will leave processing lines running at their current speeds – a decision that spares workers from an increase but still forces them to endure the current, dangerously fast pace, the SPLC said today.

“Although the most dangerous provision has been removed from this rule, poultry workers still face punishing line speeds and other conditions that lead to widespread and serious injuries,” said Michelle Lapointe, SPLC staff attorney. “We call on the administration to take meaningful steps to protect poultry workers, including the imposition of health and safety rules designed specifically for these plants. 

The USDA proposed the “Modernization of Poultry Inspection” rule in January 2012. Originally, it would have allowed poultry companies to increase the processing line speed from 140 to 175 birds per minute, putting industry profits ahead of worker and consumer safety. The USDA removed the proposed increase from the final rule after significant pressure from members of Congress, the public and advocacy groups, including the SPLC, which submitted formal comments opposing the proposed rule.

Unfortunately, the rule also takes the responsibility for most poultry inspection out of the hands of government inspectors and transfers it to company employees – a plan that will make it more likely that tainted chicken ends up on America’s dinner plates. 

Poultry and meat processing plants are among America’s most dangerous places to work. Workers race to process thousands of pieces a day with few or no rest breaks; have few bathroom breaks; and face pressure to keep up with punishing line speeds even when they are in pain caused by workplace injuries. These workers make as many as 100,000 strenuous hand, wrist and arm movements in one shift.  

These speeds result in severe and debilitating workplace injuries, including crippling carpal tunnel syndrome. Many workers are left unable to perform basic manual jobs or household tasks. The SPLC documented these hazards in its 2013 report Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers.

Nearly three out of four workers interviewed for the SPLC report said they suffered a significant work-related injury or illness, such as debilitating pain in their hands, cuts, gnarled fingers, chemical burns or respiratory problems. Workers reported that they are discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, forced to endure constant pain and even choose to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the line.

The SPLC submitted a petition last year urging the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt regulations specifically designed to protect poultry and meatpacking workers from dangerous work conditions. It has not taken action in response to the petition.