Meatpacking is the most dangerous industry for workers, a fact documented in numerous surveys and government reports, and line speed is the driving factor behind most injuries.
But on this issue, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is silent.
It is silent despite years of lobbying by worker safety advocates for OSHA to regulate line speed.
Action now has become critical because of a rule change the Department of Agriculture is considering to allow line speeds at poultry plants to go from 140 birds per minute to 175, an increase of 25 percent. In meatpacking plants, the line speed is as high as 325 cattle per hour.
Nebraska Appleseed, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups this past week petitioned OSHA to regulate line speed. This is critical to fulfilling OSHA's statutory mandate to oversee the health and safety of U.S. workers.
OSHA currently has guidelines for meatpacking plants, but “they are non-enforceable and cannot substitute for a clear and enforceable work speed standard,” the Appleseed/SLPC petition states.
Many recoil at the word OSHA, associating the agency with burdensome regulations rather than worker safety. One 2011 story told of a Nebraska roofing contractor fined $12,000 for having a ladder three rungs above the gutter instead of two.
Surely, the number of injuries attributable to line speeds makes them a more urgent regulatory necessity.
Workers make as many as 20,000 repetitive cuts per day and report injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff syndrome, lower back pain and other serious ailments characterized as musculoskeletal disorders.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2011 show an average injury rate of 3.5 per 100 U.S. workers. For poultry workers, that rate is 5.8 percent, and for meatpacking workers, 7.8 percent. Some say those figures are much too low, because many workers don't report injuries for fear of losing their jobs.
In a 2009 Nebraska Appleseed study of 455 meatpacking workers, 62 percent of them reported having a job-related injury in the previous year.
Line speeds are the “alpha and omega” of meatpacking, Journal Star reporter Don Walton wrote after a 2003 investigation.
"Uncompromising high speed is not an occasional problem. It's permanent. It's inherent. And it's non-negotiable,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia.
Current line speeds already are too dangerous, making it absurd to consider a 25 percent increase. OSHA needs to take the reins on this important worker safety issue.