Packing plant workers say pace brutal

2009-10-07T00:20:00Z Packing plant workers say pace brutalBy DON WALTON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
October 07, 2009 12:20 am  • 

Nothing really has changed.

That's the conclusion one can draw from a Nebraska Appleseed report 10 years after daunting and dangerous working conditions at Nebraska meatpacking plants made headlines and stirred a governor to action.

Production line speed remains brutally high, and might even be accelerating, say workers surveyed by Appleseed for a report that will be released today.

The document was compiled through interviews with 455 workers in five communities who told a story of hazardous workplaces, unrelenting line speed and humiliating treatment and verbal abuse.

Spokespersons for the American Meat Institute, the national trade organization representing packers and processors, quickly disputed the allegations.

The high rate of speed -- more than 300 cattle are routinely slaughtered and processed every hour at large packing plants -- leads to worker injuries, including repetitive motion disorders, and can threaten food safety, the Appleseed report stated.

Appleseed is a non-profit public interest law center in Lincoln focused on "equal justice and full opportunity for all Nebraskans." Its high-profile projects have included health care access, child welfare and immigrant issues.

Workers who wield knives on swift-moving production lines can make more than 10,000 cuts a day, and are particularly susceptible to repetitive motion injuries and disorders.

Sixty-two percent of workers who responded to the survey reported they had been injured during their previous year at work.

"Startlingly high injury rates persist and repetitive motion injuries are crippling workers' hands, necks and backs, curling their bodies," Appleseed stated.

Neither the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the state provides adequate inspection to protect worker safety, according to the report.

Many workers remain unaware of their rights when seeking medical help and are uninformed about access to worker compensation benefits, the survey concluded.

The largely Hispanic work force experiences workplace abuse by supervisors ranging from "screaming (at) and humiliating employees to denying permission to use the restroom," the report stated.

The Lincoln Journal Star documented similar allegations and concerns in a series of stories published in 1999, prompting then-Gov. Mike Johanns to order a probe of working conditions.

Johanns subsequently authored a "bill of rights" for meatpacking workers in Nebraska informing them of their legal rights, including the opportunity to organize their workplace through union representation.

Ten years later, almost half of the workers are unaware of the bill of rights, according to Appleseed, and less than 30 percent believe those rights make a difference.

American Meat Institute spokespersons challenged claims of excessive line speed.

"If our line speeds were too fast, there is no way workers could do their jobs in a skilled manner at a satisfactory level," said Dan McCausland, senior director for worker safety and human resources.

"It's not about speed, it's about the crew size," he said.

Said Janet Riley, the American Meat Institute's senior vice president of public affairs: "It's hard to argue that line speeds are moving too fast to ensure work safety when we have had such success in enhancing worker safety."

Riley pointed to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data that state the incidence of reported injuries and illnesses for 2007 was down nearly 8 percent from 2006. The 2007 figure was 8.4 injuries per 100 full-time workers.

Appleseed cited labor statistics that identify meatpacking as "one of the most dangerous jobs in America, with the highest injury and illness rate of all private industries in the country."

As for food safety, Riley said U.S. Department of Agriculture data demonstrate bacteria on beef products is "down dramatically over the last 10 years."

Appleseed's survey of workers at eight Nebraska packing plants was conducted in 2007-2008.

The center has chosen not to identify the plants, thus focusing the spotlight on working conditions within the industry rather than targeting specific employers.

"No conclusions are drawn about the individual sites (because) only a very small number of respondents" were surveyed at each of the eight plants, it was noted.

Appleseed offers a series of recommendations for improving working conditions, with special emphasis on slowing line speed.

"Of all the findings generated by this survey, the most striking was the number of comments and intensity with which workers called for a need to slow down the brutal pace of meatpacking work," Appleseed stated.

That pace could be reduced both by slowing the line and by increasing the number of workers, it said.

OSHA, the federal agency entrusted with assuring safe and healthful working conditions, should play a role in determining reasonable line speed and staffing numbers, Appleseed recommended.

Currently, only the Food Safety and Inspection Service in the USDA can regulate line speed to protect food safety.

"OSHA does not recognize line speed as a hazard," McCausland said.

Some 73 percent of workers surveyed stated line speeds had increased during the prior year, and 80 percent questioned their supervisors' commitment to employee safety.

The survey mirrors previous reports of substantial underreporting of worker injuries.

More than one-third of workers said they feared reporting an accident or injury for fear of losing their jobs.

Only about one-third knew they had a right to choose their own doctor.

"Many companies deny work-related injuries, claims and workers' access to the workers compensation system," according to Appleseed.

Ten years ago, allegations of workplace abuse were dramatized by reports that some workers ended up urinating in their pants on the production line because they were denied timely bathroom breaks.

That allegation is echoed in this week's survey.

"I know of three people that peed themselves and pooped themselves and afterwards they just laugh at you," one anonymous worker stated in the survey.

In addition to slowing line speed and empowering OSHA, here a few other recommendations made by Appleseed:

  • The state should require employers to provide workers with personal copies of the meatpacking bill of rights.
  • The state should upgrade its part-time position of bill of rights coordinator to a full-time position and add two meatpacking plant inspectors.
  • The state's worker compensation system should be strengthened, and workers need to be informed about their rights.
  • OSHA should be provided with adequate resources and penalties for violations need to be increased.
  • OSHA should reinstate the federal workplace ergonomics program -- which imposed rules designed to reduce musculo-skeletal injuries and repetitive motion disorders -- rescinded during the Bush administration.
  • Congress should protect and strengthen worker rights to organize their workplace and acquire union representation.

McCausland, at the Meat Institute, said OSHA already is being empowered by the new Obama administration.

Its budget provides funding to hire 100 additional inspectors, he said.

But OSHA is so severely understaffed now it has only eight inspectors to monitor workplace conditions for more than 900,000 workers in the Midwest region, including Nebraska, Appleseed said.

Jordan Barab, new acting head of OSHA, has signaled his interest in the importance of workplace ergonomics, McCausland said.

The earlier ergonomics program was erased by Congress and OSHA does not have authority to reinstate it on its own, he said.

"Meatpacking workers care deeply about getting this story out to the public in order to improve safety conditions in the plants," Appleseed stated.

The goal of its survey is to "help companies, community groups, workers, unions, consumers and government work to establish policies and practices to create working conditions of which we can all be proud," Appleseed said.

Reach Don Walton at 473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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