Poultry and meat workers face some of the most hazardous conditions in the country, and the likelihood that they will be injured on the job remain twice as high as all U.S. workers, according to U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) data compiled for a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.
Although injuries in the poultry and meat industry dropped by nearly 40 percent overall between 2004 and 2013, it’s possible that both employees and employers may underreport these issues. Many workers may be afraid of losing their jobs, while employers may be concerned with incurring potential costs.
Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) — the Democratic lawmakers who released the report — are calling on the GAO to work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to mitigate the dangerous conditions inside U.S. slaughterhouses.
This is a matter of basic justice.
“The conditions that these workers are forced to endure is an outrage, and have no place in our nation,” Casey said, according to The Hill. “This is a matter of basic justice. The meat and poultry industry must quickly take substantial steps to improve the workplace conditions for those in this industry.”
Latinos and immigrants make up a large part of the meat and poultry industry workforce, according to a 2005 human Human Rights Watch report. But because some of the immigrants are undocumented, they often “suffer violations of their rights but are afraid to challenge them,” which allows employers to exploit them with bad pay and dirty, dangerous working conditions.
Jose Gaytan, an immigrant from Mexico, began working in slaughterhouses at the age of 19 because he thought the job would pay well. He began to feel his hands change from the effects of his job to “pull the tenderloin, which is where the filet mignon comes from,” he previously told ThinkProgress. Every night, his hands would “sting” and hurt.
Pedro, a poultry worker at a Tyson plant in North Carolina, processes 45 to 60 chickens every minute. To treat his hands — which get so swollen from handling the chickens that he has to wear 3XL-sized plastic gloves — a nurse told him to take ibuprofen and to soak his hands in Epsom salt and hot water.
Although Pedro and Jose have to work through the pain, they are actually among the fortunate in the meat industry. Other workplace injuries in this sector have resulted in fatalities. The new GAO report found that between 2004 and 2013, 151 workers died on the job, with transportation incidents cited as the most frequent cause of death.
The report also found that meat and poultry workers experienced higher illness rates than other manufacturing workers, with illnesses accounting for more than one-fourth of all reported injury and illness cases in 2013. In some cases, workers experienced respiratory ailment symptoms because of the chlorine used in poultry plants, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors told GAO report researchers.
The revelations in the GAO report are not new. Over the past year OxFam America released reports detailing the horrid conditions that poultry workers undergo, such as low pay; exposure to harsh chemicals used to clean up the blood, offal, and grease that flows from the birds; and repetitive strains. Another recent OxFam report found that some workers resorted to wearing adult diapers because they weren’t able to use the bathroom when they needed to.
After that report was released, the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association insisted that the health and safety of employees remained a “top priority” for poultry processors.
“We’re troubled by these claims but also question this group’s efforts to paint the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims,” the organization wrote in a press release. “We believe such instances are extremely rare and that U.S. poultry companies work hard to prevent them.”
But advocates for poultry workers insisted that companies weren’t doing enough to ensure worker safety and protection.
Meat and poultry workers continue to face multiple hazards in the workplace that put them at great risk.
“Once again, the GAO confirms what experts, workers, and advocates have been saying for years,” said Oliver Gottfried, Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor for Oxfam America. “Meat and poultry workers continue to face multiple hazards in the workplace that put them at great risk, and companies are not doing enough to care for their workers or paint an accurate picture of the real rates of incidents. Oxfam continues to call on the industry leaders — Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms — to lead the way in implementing changes that will improve conditions for workers in their plants.”
A February 2016 Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center (NWAWJC) report similarly found that poultry companies often subjected people of color and immigrants to wage discrepancies, discrimination, while females experienced sexual harassment.
“It’s clear from the report that workers continue to put their health and well-being on the line to fulfill the meat and poultry industry’s relentless production demands,” Sarah Rich, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) staff attorney, said in a press statement. “Their injury and illness rates still outpace the rates for manufacturing overall despite the GAO acknowledging that there is ‘underreporting and inadequate data collection’ for injuries and illness in the meat and poultry industry.
The GAO report does provide a glimpse into how conditions have hardly budged for workers in the 11 years since the release of the last federal report on the matter. In response to GAO researchers, OSHA acknowledged that meat and poultry work consists of using “forceful exertions, awkward postures, and repetitive cutting motions” and that it “generally agrees” with recommendations to improve the ergonomics process and hazard training for maintenance staff. But OSHA also cautioned that “the specific steps that you have recommended may not be easily or quickly implemented, due to resource constraints.” “There should be no doubt that the industry will continue to sacrifice people for profit until there’s regulation to reduce the grueling speed of the processing lines and ensure workplace injuries are properly addressed,” Rich said. “It is time to end the exploitation.”