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SPLC: Fight continues for poultry workers after OSHA refuses to create better workplace protections

The SPLC and a coalition of other civil rights groups have vowed to continue fighting for poultry and meatpacking workers following the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s refusal to create safeguards to protect them from crippling repetitive motion injuries. 

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has formally refused a petition submitted by the SPLC and other civil rights organizations urging the agency to create work speed protections for poultry and meatpacking workers, who suffer alarming rates of severe and crippling repetitive motion injuries.

In a letter received by the groups last week, OSHA wrote that the denial was a result of “limited resources” preventing it from conducting the work necessary to create safeguards specifically for these workers.

The SPLC will continue to push for such protections. The groups submitted the rulemaking petition in 2013.

“We are disappointed that OSHA has failed to step up and protect poultry and meatpacking workers from permanent, debilitating workplace injuries,” said Sarah Rich, SPLC staff attorney. “The workers who prepare the food that so many of us eat should not have to sacrifice their health for a paycheck. They deserve better.”

Workers enduring the rapid work speeds of these processing plants suffer high rates of musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. OSHA noted in its letter that “the incidence rate of occupational illness cases, including musculoskeletal disorders, reported in the poultry industry in 2011 and 2012 has remained high – at more than five times the average for all U.S. industries.” It also noted that meatpacking workers “experience elevated rates of occupational injuries and illnesses.”

The OSHA letter notes that a number of ergonomic risk factors interact with cold temperatures to cause musculoskeletal disorders among meatpacking and poultry workers: the number of repetitions in a shift, the force needed to do a job, awkward postures and vibration.

It states that the comprehensive analysis needed to create new rules tailored for these industries is not possible because “the Agency’s limited resources do not allow for this comprehensive analysis and rulemaking effort,” and noted that “your petition for OSHA to issue a work speed standard in the meatpacking and poultry industries is denied.”

These workplace hazards have been documented by the SPLC in its 2013 report Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers. Nebraska Appleseed, one of the groups submitting the petition, documented similar dangers in the meatpacking industry in its 2009 report The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers.