Injuries and illnesses at U.S. meatpacking plants reached record lows last year, recent labor data show, a sign that worker conditions are improving, according to meat industry advocates.
In 2018, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data available, the U.S. injury and illness incident rate in animal slaughter and processing operations reached a record low of 4.3 cases per 100 full-time workers. Meat and chicken industry groups welcomed the news earlier this month, saying it underscores how much progress the industry has made in the past 20 years in workplace safety.
While the injury count appears to be improving, the Government Accountability Office has raised concerns about the accuracy of injury and illness reporting. It alleged under-reporting in a 2005 study about the Labor Department's data.
The meat industry reported 23,500 nonfatal worker incidents in 2018, and most involved injuries. That averages out to about 64 cases a day nationwide.
The incidents were severe enough that the worker lost consciousness, had to stay days away from work, had to do restricted work or was transferred to another job, according to the Occupational Safety Health Administration. Injuries requiring only first aid do not have to be reported.
The rate of injury and illness incidents in poultry processing in 2018 was lower than the overall U.S. rate at 3.5 cases per 100 full-time workers, for a total of 8,700 cases. Almost all involved injuries.
Jason Apple, a meat science professor at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, said working conditions have certainly improved.
Illness and injury rates have fallen 85% in the past 20 years, labor data show. In 2008, the meatpacking incident rate was 10.3 per 100 workers, more than double the national average of 3.9. Before that it was 29.3, higher than any other industry category in 1998.
Despite improvements in the number of incidents reported, facilities' slippery floors, extreme temperatures, loud noises and risk of cuts or muscle strain remain part of the meatpacking environment.
Last year about 5,260 injuries related to animal slaughtering resulted in workers spending days away from work, hundreds more than in 2017. Over half of the cases involved production line workers and were related to muscle strains, cuts, fractures or traumatic injuries, data show. Poultry companies reported 1,890 cases where employees had to leave work, about 250 more than in 2017.
"When I go into packing plants, the goal is to reduce injuries," Apple said. "A lot of the earlier injuries that we would see were due to language barriers."
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, most of the packing plants that he visited employed older workers, predominately white or black. A lot of them were convicts, he said. But through the years, companies began to rely on migrant workers, creating language and cultural barriers in the plants.
"I would probably say we were the last to come around," Apple said about the industry and its efforts to improve worker conditions. "But [companies] made it very much a priority."
In recent years, Tyson Foods and others have implemented policies and guidelines to ensure worker safety. In 2018, Tyson offered English-as-a-second-language and citizenship classes to more than 5,000 workers at 33 plants, according to a company sustainability report. Tyson also reduced its recorded worker safety incident rate by 22% from a year ago.
"We improved our safety record again this year by reducing OSHA recordable incidents by 18% versus our goal of 10%," Noel White, Tyson's president and chief executive officer, said in a recent earnings call.
Days without recorded injuries are like badges of honor to meatpackers, Apple said.
3 INCIDENTS A DAY
In Arkansas, where poultry processing constitutes a lot of the state's farm cash receipts, there were 1,000 injury and illness cases in 2018, up from 2017 -- an average of nearly 3 incidents a day.
Georgia, the leading poultry processing state, saw a similar number of injuries and illnesses that year. Alabama reported 800 cases, or roughly 2 incidents a day.
The accuracy of the reporting on injury and illness incidents is questionable, the GAO claims.
In the late 1980s, OSHA documented dozens of under-reported cases and assessed more than $2.5 million in penalties to several meatpacking companies. The Labor Department clamped down in response, advancing its efforts to regularly investigate the plants through the 1990s. But OSHA continues "to find some measure of under-reporting of employers' injury and illness information" through audits each year.
The report also noted how migrant workers "may fear retaliation or loss of employment if they are injured and cannot perform their work, and they may be hesitant to report an injury."
In addition, some plants offer employee incentives or money for maintaining low injury and illness rates. These incentives may discourage production workers and their supervisors, also influenced by performance incentives, to report worker cases of injury or illness, according to OSHA's study.
"It's just bogus," said Debbie Berkowitz, the worker health and safety program director for the National Employment Law Project. The rates are not an accurate depiction of what is happening inside the plants, she said: "It's mostly just paper magic."
In 2001, OSHA removed a designated space for employers to report musculoskeletal disorders -- injuries like carpal tunnel or tendinitis that develop through repeated movements. Now all such cases fall into a catch-all category that obscures their prevalence among meat and poultry workers, according to critics. A Workers' Health and Safety report found that after the rule was enacted, industry injury and illness rates dropped in half between 2000 and 2006.
Berkowitz, the former chief of staff at OSHA under the Obama administration, said that in many cases poultry workers do their jobs with pride, but once they have to see a doctor or go to the emergency room, the companies contest all form of workers' compensation.
OSHA also doesn't have sufficient resources to effectively oversee the implementation and enforcement of its standards, she said.
That spills over into what kind of and how many cases the agency can investigate. According to OSHA documents requested by the National Employment Law Project and obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, several incidents at poultry plants in Arkansas in 2018 were not investigated.
Of the nine reports submitted between July 23 and Oct. 22, only two were investigated by OSHA. In both cases, the two workers severed fingers doing odd jobs at Tyson Foods plants. One severed the tip of the right hand middle finger using a wrapping machine. The other amputated a right index finger while working on a breading machine.
SundayMonday Business on 11/24/2019
Print Headline: Data indicate injuries down at meat plants