From Amputations to Respiratory Illnesses, New Report Exposes Hazards of Slaughterhouse Work

Anna Casey

Workers in the meat processing industry face injuries, lack of access to bathrooms and other health threats at plants, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this month. Source: National Chicken Council

This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by the The Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing.

Repet­i­tive motion injuries, ampu­ta­tions and cuts con­tin­ue to be com­mon dan­gers that work­ers in the meat pro­cess­ing indus­try face, accord­ing to a Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Office report released this month.

The GAO also found work­ers suf­fer res­pi­ra­to­ry ill­ness­es from per­acetic acid – an antimi­cro­bial chem­i­cal – sprayed on meat in pro­cess­ing facil­i­ties. In addi­tion, inves­ti­ga­tors from GAO iden­ti­fied a lack of bath­room access as a major con­cern among work­ers – one that work­ers were afraid to men­tion to fed­er­al labor inspec­tors at plants for fear of ret­ri­bu­tion from their employer.

The report reviewed the government’s efforts – specif­i­cal­ly the Depart­ment of Labor’s Occu­pa­tion­al Health and Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) – to pro­tect the health and safe­ty of work­ers in the nation’s ani­mal slaugh­ter­ing and pro­cess­ing indus­try, one of the most haz­ardous indus­tries in the U.S.

Approx­i­mate­ly 72 work­ers were inter­viewed in Arkansas, Delaware, Nebras­ka, North Car­oli­na and Vir­ginia. Work­ers in three of those states said they had suf­fered neg­a­tive health effects, such as kid­ney prob­lems, from delayed or denied bath­room breaks. One indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tive said some super­vi­sors in meat and poul­try plants restrict­ed bath­room access in order to max­i­mize pro­duc­tion out­put, accord­ing to the report.

When asked by GAO, work­ers in five select­ed states cit­ed bath­room access as a con­cern and said they fear speak­ing up at work,” the report stated.

OSHA sets safe­ty stan­dards and plays a role in estab­lish­ing and enforc­ing reg­u­la­tions that affect the health of the esti­mat­ed 480,000 peo­ple in the U.S. meat and poul­try pro­cess­ing indus­try. The depart­ment increased inspec­tions from 177 in 2005 to 244 in 2016, but the gov­ern­ment still faced chal­lenges iden­ti­fy­ing and address­ing con­cerns of workers.

GAO found that employ­ees at some plants feared penal­ties for com­ing for­ward with injuries sus­tained on the job. Cuts, repet­i­tive motion injuries, and ampu­ta­tions occur from hand saws, knives and oth­er man­u­al tools, but the report found that the acces­si­bil­i­ty of first aid sta­tions, and the exper­tise of on-site med­ical pro­fes­sion­als was lack­ing at sev­er­al facil­i­ties, accord­ing to inter­views con­duct­ed with Depart­ment of Labor officials.

One poul­try plant employ­ee vis­it­ed an on-site med­ical pro­fes­sion­al over the course of three months for severe pain in her wrist. Dur­ing this time, she con­tin­ued to work until she was referred to anoth­er doc­tor affil­i­at­ed with the com­pa­ny who didn’t find a prob­lem. She lat­er, went to a doc­tor unaf­fil­i­at­ed with the plant, who found a bone frac­ture,” accord­ing to the report.

Based on its find­ings, the GAO out­lined sev­en rec­om­men­da­tions to the Depart­ment of Labor’s Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing steps to encour­age work­ers to come for­ward about sen­si­tive con­cerns by con­duct­ing off-site inter­views, and updat­ing guide­lines for employ­ers on how to bet­ter man­age their health units.

Work­er-advo­ca­cy non­prof­it Oxfam wel­comed the GAO report, and said in a state­ment that it con­firmed find­ings from stud­ies they had con­duct­ed in 2015 and 2016 into the safe­ty of the meat pro­cess­ing industry.

The cen­tral under­ly­ing prob­lem is the per­va­sive cli­mate of fear inside poul­try plants; when work­ers are afraid to report issues, OSHA and oth­er inspec­tion agen­cies are unable to detect or inves­ti­gate prob­lems,” Oxfam said in a statement.

While spe­cif­ic com­pa­nies were not named in the report, Vir­ginia-based Smith­field Foods, which employs about 34,000 peo­ple in pork pro­cess­ing and pack­ag­ing jobs, said that their injury rates were below the nation­al aver­age, due in part to an employ­ee engage­ment effort that encour­ages employ­ees to play an even more active role in com­mu­ni­cat­ing, train­ing and imple­ment­ing” Smithfield’s safe­ty-man­age­ment pro­gram, said Karen Lom­bar­do, Senior Vice Pres­i­dent of Cor­po­rate Affairs at Smith­field. The company’s work­place health and safe­ty vio­la­tions declined from 67 in 2012 to 29 last year, accord­ing to its annu­al report.

Seaboard Foods, a Kansas pork pro­duc­er, received the most fines of any food com­pa­ny for OSHA vio­la­tions in 2017, accord­ing to the most recent­ly avail­able data from Good Jobs First. The vio­la­tions, for things such as improp­er guard­ing on tools, occurred at the com­pa­ny’s plant in Guy­mon, Okla­homa. The ini­tial fines totaled more than $100,000, indi­cat­ing the seri­ous­ness of the penal­ty, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly the amount the com­pa­ny ulti­mate­ly had to pay.

In a response to GAO’s report, trade groups rep­re­sent­ing the U.S. poul­try pro­cess­ing indus­try said they had made sig­nif­i­cant progress in reduc­ing injury and ill­ness rates in recent decades, and that they would con­tin­ue to work toward safer envi­ron­ments for employees.

While GAO’s rec­om­men­da­tions per­tain to OSHA, FSIS and NIOSH, we look for­ward to review­ing the report and rec­om­men­da­tions in detail to deter­mine if they will have a mean­ing­ful out­come in help­ing to con­tin­ue the progress we’ve made in keep­ing our employ­ees safe,” said Tom Super, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Nation­al Chick­en Coun­cil, Nation­al Turkey Fed­er­a­tion and U.S. Poul­try & Egg Association.

A 2016 GAO report found that injury and ill­ness rates among work­ers in meat and poul­try pro­cess­ing plants has declined steadi­ly since 2004, part of an over­all trend across man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­tries, but that meat and poul­try pro­cess­ing remained one of the most haz­ardous occu­pa­tions for U.S. workers.

The Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing is a non­prof­it, online news­room offer­ing inves­tiga­tive and enter­prise cov­er­age of agribusi­ness, Big Ag and relat­ed issues through data analy­sis, visu­al­iza­tions, in-depth reports and inter­ac­tive web tools. Vis­it us online at www​.inves​ti​gatemid​west​.org.

Anna Casey is an Engage­ment Fel­low with the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. She is a grad­u­ate of Knox Col­lege in Gales­burg, Ill., and received her master’s in jour­nal­ism from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin in the spring of 2017. Her report­ing has appeared in out­lets includ­ing Kaiser Health news, Refinery29, the Texas Tri­bune, the Austin Amer­i­can-States­man, and npr​.org, the web­site of Nation­al Pub­lic Radio.
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