USDA proposal threatens health of vulnerable poultry workers

In recent months, I have heard from women and men in Mississippi who have suffered debilitating injuries working in our state’s poultry processing plants. They have told me about the hard work they perform to hang, cut and pack meat from tens of thousands of chickens daily.

These workers – the majority of whom are women, African Americans, or Latinos – often repeat the same motions thousands of times a day with few breaks. It’s grueling work that makes the United States the world’s largest producer of poultry. Yet, when workers start to feel the consequences of this labor, such as disabling pain in their hands and fingers, some companies fire them – throwing them away as if they were leftover chicken bones.

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I have also learned from plant workers about a disturbing proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will make their jobs even more dangerous. The agency has proposed a new inspection system that would allow poultry plants to increase line speeds from the current maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. This means more birds to process and more pain for workers.

Current speeds have created an epidemic of workplace injuries. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently found that 42 percent of workers in one poultry plant had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome. The Mississippi-based Coalition of Poultry Workers and the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center have found hundreds of poultry workers unable to perform basic household tasks because of the pain of musculoskeletal injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

The SPLC’s report, Unsafe at These Speeds, surveyed 302 current and former poultry workers in Alabama. Seventy-two percent of the respondents described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness. Workers often attributed those injuries to the already punishing pace of the line. Some poultry workers have even admitted to urinating on themselves rather than anger a supervisor by leaving the line to use the restroom. It is disturbing that the USDA would consider increasing line speeds when workers endure such conditions.

Currently, USDA inspectors determine which birds on the slaughter line are not safe for consumption. A new inspection system proposed by the agency would hand that duty over to slaughter and processing plant employees. This also means poultry workers will be more concerned with processing birds – and keeping their jobs – than slowing the line to stop contaminated chicken bound for dinner tables.

It is ridiculous to push processing line speeds beyond their already dangerous levels. The USDA’s proposal is unacceptable. And, it’s unacceptable to many of my colleagues in Congress.

But this is about more than the USDA’s proposal. Working people exposed to health and safety hazards deserve to be protected to the greatest extent possible. Their safety should not be sacrificed in an effort to produce more chickens.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration must create workplace standards that address the injuries these workers suffer as a result of fast line speeds. It also must vigorously enforce existing safety guidelines. Quite simply, it must protect these workers from harm. Safety guidelines that exist only on paper do not protect the men and women feeding this nation.  

Thompson has represented Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District since 1993. He is ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee.