Cargill, Schuyler

The Cargill meatpacking plant in Schuyler in 2008.

More. That’s the underlying word accompanying the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent rule change eliminating limits on line speed and reducing the number of inspectors at pork-processing plants nationwide.

More speed brings more pigs into the facility. More pigs bring more products to market.

These are good things for the operations’ bottom line, no doubt. But that also means more of the collateral damage associated with such a shift, including more injuries and more worries about safety.

As an employee at a pork plant in Nebraska, speaking anonymously to protect his job, recently told the Journal Star: "More pigs, less hours, more injuries.” The worker’s worries align with a report issued earlier this month by Human Rights Watch detailing the hazardous conditions at meatpacking plants, including interviews with several employees in Nebraska.

No matter how one shakes it, working in facilities where animals are brought to be slaughtered, sliced, deboned and packaged comes with inherent risk of physical harm. It's the nature of work that involves many knives, blades, saws and other sharp items meant to cut through muscle and bone, with the report noting these jobs often produce more severe injuries than sawmills and industrial construction.

That danger of this important work must be balanced with a baseline of safeguards at plants. Recall then-Gov. Mike Johanns’ efforts in 2000 that spurred the creation of a state meatpacking workers bill of rights that sought to inform employees of their rights and monitor conditions of these demanding jobs.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue — now occupying a position once held by Johanns — said the new rule change would shift more food safety responsibilities to workers. But complicating matters is that a large share of the workforce in meatpacking plants in this state and region consists of immigrants, both legal and undocumented. The latter find themselves in an especially vulnerable place now.

Enforcement of the workplace safety policies Americans expect at any place of business are now intertwined with immigration raids. Potential whistleblowers may weigh fear of reprisal against themselves or their families’ livelihood, with last month’s federal raid in Mississippi that led to 600 arrests — which some bill as the largest such action in U.S. history — fresh in their memory.

Packing plants have largely been positive additions to many rural communities, bringing waves of capital investment, jobs and new residents at a time when the farm economy is struggling and populations are generally declining. That said, these inherently dangerous operations must do their best to cater to workers' well-being.

More is certainly not a bad thing. But it must be achieved in a manner to ensure more protections for the employees performing vital, though hazardous, work at this particularly tenuous time.

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