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Safety Advocates Say Last-Minute Push by USDA to Speed Up Poultry Plants Will Endanger Workers

Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Press Contacts: 

Roger Kerson, 734.645.0535; roger@nationalcosh.org

Safety Advocates Say Last-Minute Push by USDA to Speed Up
Poultry Plants Will Endanger Workers

Rejected in 2014, Industry-wide Push for Faster Line Speeds Moves to OMB;
Rushed Process Could Put New Rules in Place Before January 20

LOS ANGELES – Safety advocates say the U.S. Department of Agriculture is endangering workers and the public with a last-minute proposal to increase line speeds in poultry plants to 175 birds per minute.

“Faster line speeds will mean workers can’t be socially distant. Instead they will be packed closer together and at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). “This last-minute push for an ill-advised rule change could be deadly for essential workers in slaughterhouses. More than half of them are Black and Latinx, and many are living below the poverty line without desperately needed economic relief or adequate health insurance.”

The Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS), a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) presented a proposed speed-up rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review on November 6. The new proposal is not yet available to the public.

The proposed speed up to 175 birds per minute, long sought by the poultry industry, would allow all U.S. poultry plants to operate at higher speeds. This means a higher risk of injury to workers and higher risk of contaminated meat finding its way to consumers.

“For the Trump administration to Issue a rule to increase line speeds for poultry processing is a bad idea at any time, let alone during a pandemic,” said Hunter Ogletree of the Western North Carolina Workers Center. “Poultry processing workers have risked their lives to keep food on our tables during this pandemic – and this is their reward? Poultry companies have refused to adopt measures to protect workers and increasing line speed now will only exacerbate worker exposure to COVID-19. It will also adversely affect other deep-seated health and safety issues that processing workers have faced for years.”

Even prior to COVID, a job in a poultry plant was more dangerous than working in a coal mine or a construction site, with injury rates sixty percent higher than the average for U.S. industries. Working at high speeds with sharp cutting tools, poultry workers suffer more finger amputations than workers in any other occupation.  The number of meat and poultry workers that have died from COVID-19 in meat and poultry plants in the last 10 months is 20 times the number of workers killed in these plants nationwide in 2018. Workers are also at risk for broken bones, lacerations, carpal tunnel syndrome, sprains, strains and other ergonomic injuries – and are now also at high risk for exposure to COVID-19. Poultry plants are kept cold with little fresh air flow. This environment protects birds from spoilage but puts workers at increased risk of contracting a deadly virus.

“This is bad public policy,” Debbie Berkowitz, Worker Safety and Health Program Director with the National Employment Law Project. Industry attempts to win a nationwide increase in line speeds were rejected, she noted, by U.S. regulators during the Obama/Biden administration in 2014 after a two-year rule making process. “What they’re trying to do is push this through OMB quickly so they can get in the Federal Register by the end of November, wrap up 30 days of public comment, and then issue a final rule in January just as the Trump administration is walking out the door.”

“We are in the middle of a pandemic where over 48,000 meat and poultry workers have been infected with COVID-19 and so many have been hospitalized and died,” said Berkowitz. “These industries rely on the labor of Black, Latinx, undocumented, and refugee workers, who will pay a high price for USDA’s irresponsible rush to regulate. There is no reason to add greater risk for the essential workers who go to work every day at what is already one of the most dangerous jobs in America.”

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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.

The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers. For more about NELP, visit www.nelp.org. Follow NELP on Twitter at @NelpNews.