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Further evidence indicates that USDA should withdraw proposed Poultry Rule

National COSH this week joins the Southern Poverty Law Center and other worker and civil rights groups in petitioning OSHA and the USDA to improve worker safety in poultry and meatpacking plants across the country.

More specifically, the groups petitioned OSHA to issue new work speed standards to protect the workers responsible for making the United States the largest producer of poultry and beef in the world. OSHA has general health and safety rules for workplaces but does not regulate processing line speeds that often operate at a punishing pace.

The only federal agency regulating line speed is the USDA, which is solely focused on food safety and maximizing production for the industries.

The petition comes as the USDA prepares to launch a proposal to increase poultry processing line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175. For the mathematicians out there, that’s one bird every one-third of a second. Legit, right? Um, no.

The petition also calls on the USDA to consider its proposed rule change.

About a year ago, National COSH and other allies sent a letter to the USDA urging the agency to withdraw its proposal.  

“This proposal that would allow drastic increases in poultry line speeds would have potentially devastating effects not only for consumers, but also for workers on the line,” said Tom O” Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “At current line speeds, thousands of workers already suffer from repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome—this proposal would likely cause many more. In addition, at faster work speeds, poultry plant workers may be more exposed to knife cuts, toxic chemicals and other hazards.”

Already, 59 percent of poultry workers develop repetitive motion injuries. Increasing the inspection line speed would undoubtedly have detrimental effects on worker health.  

In case the ample evidence that work speed is a primary contributor to injuries among poultry and meatpacking workers wasn’tenough, the USDA now has another reason to begin whistling a different tune.

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has found that the USDA has used incomplete and antiquated data in support of its plan to speed up poultry inspection lines.  

The Washington Post reported yesterday that “As a result, there are ” questions about the validity” of the USDA’s conclusions that the procedures, now used by a limited number of poultry plants under a pilot program, are more effective than the traditional approach at reducing pathogens such as salmonella, the GAO found.”  

GAO auditors found that the USDA, in analyzing whether the pilot inspection program improved plants’ efficiency, used data in part collected from plants more than 11 years ago and other data from a study that was more than 20 years old, the Post reports.

More recent data, from a government study conducted by NIOSH of a South Carolina poultry plant, found that 4 in 10 workers showed signs of carpal tunnel. A majority of workers reported “multiple musculoskeletal symptoms,” most commonly hand and wrist pain. And that’s before the line speed is increased.  

Out of 318 participants at the plant, 213 “reported pain, burning, numbness or tingling in their hands or wrists in the past 12 months.” Furthermore, two-thirds of those 213 workers reported “awakening from sleep because of these symptoms.”

If that weren’tbad enough,“Poultry line workers are among some of the most vulnerable laborers in the U.S.,” the Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson reports. “The polyglot workforces often include immigrants from Latin American and African countries, who generally work for low pay on demanding production schedules. Class-action lawsuits have become common in the industry, with workers claiming they’re shorted on their wages or required to work off the clock.”  

Amidst the latest findings, the USDA should withdraw its proposal to increase line speeds at poultry plants and OSHA should issue a standard to improve worker health and safety in poultry and meatpacking plants.

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