A trade association of poultry producers thinks that production lines in poultry processing facilities are too slow, and it has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow companies to speed up their production lines.
The National Chicken Council in September petitioned the USDA to waive federal regulations that cap poultry production line speeds at 140 birds per minute.
Interfaith Worker Justice (IJW), a leading organization of a faith/labor coalition opposing the request, said that lifting the waiver will make a bad situation worse.
“Poultry line speeds have for years been capped at 140 birds per minute, a rate that already causes countless injuries and illnesses every year to the workers who must make the same two or three cuts thousands of time over the course of a single shift. Carpal tunnel syndrome and other chronic injuries are common, as are amputations,” said IJW in a media release.
Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Project, said that poultry workers also face serious threats to their health because they are exposed to hazardous chemicals and because their employers limit their bathroom breaks in order to keep fast-paced production lines moving.
The Chicken Council’s petition says that increased line speeds will result in cost savings that are “consistent with the regulatory reform initiatives recently put in place by the President, and the waivers are consistent with the Administration’s emphasis on reducing regulatory burdens on the industry.”
The petition also says that food safety won’t be affected by the speed up, but it didn’t say anything about the speed up’s impact on worker safety and health.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), however, did have something on this subject and it wasn’t good.
The GAO conducted a study of worker safety at meat and poultry production facilities in the US. In November, it issued a report on its findings.
The agency’s report says that meat and poultry workers work in close quarters with sharp knives; the floors on the production line are wet; machines at the facilities can be dangerous, and workers can also be exposed to hazardous chemicals.
Workers told GAO employees that production lines moves so fast and relentlessly that they don’t have time to take bathroom breaks.
These conditions, according to the report, make “meat and poultry slaughter and processing one of the most hazardous industries in the United States.”
The GAO report isn’t the only source that calls attention to the worker safety problems at poultry processing plants.
The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports that the poultry industry is “a leading source of reports of occupational finger amputations.”
Berkowitz said that based on these findings and others, “the USDA must reject the (poultry) industry’s petition.”
“Poultry workers already work in harsh conditions and at breakneck line speeds,” Berkowitz said. “As a result, even industry-reported statistics show that workers face illness rates five times the national average. Among all industries reporting to the federal government, the poultry industry had a higher number of severe injuries than much of the construction industry, the auto industry, the steel industry, and the saw mill industry,”
The faith and labor coalition on December 12 rallied in Washington DC, and a delegation hand delivered letters to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Carmen Rottenberg urging them “to keep line speeds as they are and reject industry pressure to deregulate.”
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, also sent Perdue a letter.
“Deciding to increase line speeds while so many poultry workers are enduring dehumanizing and dangerous conditions makes no sense,” writes Perrone.
“Now is the time for the USDA to take more decisive steps to protect vulnerable workers inside poultry plants–particularly at non union plants where they routinely struggle to speak up about inhumane conditions–not to end speed limits,” continues Perrone. “For the sake of protecting hard working poultry workers and American families who consume chicken, rejecting this line speed petition is the right thing to do.”