A new report published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has garnered mixed reactions on worker safety in the meat and poultry industry and whether or not it has improved enough over the last decade or so.

What exactly has improved?

  • 2014 incidence rates for nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses reached a new, all-time industry low of 5.5 cases per 100 full-time workers per year. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • 12 years ago, injury and illness rates among meat and poultry workers was at 9.8 per 100. That number has been cut almost in half to 5.7 cases in 2013.

This is GAO’s first report on worker safety in the meat and poultry industry since 2004.

The new data suggests that the meat and poultry industry is a safer working environment than industries that produce products used to cook meat (ie. kitchen utensil, pot and pan manufacturing) and drink with your meal (ie. soft drink and bottled water manufacturing, frozen fruit and vegetable juice manufacturing). These are developments that the industry is pleased with. According to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), much work has gone into making the meat and poultry industry a safe environment for workers.

In a statement, NAMI says,

"Much of the improvement in worker safety over the years can be attributed to two major efforts initiated by the meat industry beginning in 1990.  That year, the U.S. meat industry, together with OSHA and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, developed Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines for the Meat Packing Industry—guidelines that OSHA called a “model” for other industries. In addition, the AMI Board of Directors (predecessor to NAMI) deemed workplace safety a non-competitive issue and encouraged their respective company staffs to share information on safety practices.  This decision enabled the Association's Worker Safety Committee to pursue a number of safety improvements, including the annual Conference on Worker Safety and Human Resources, which has occurred annually ever since."

However, Democrats still consider the industry’s rates of injury and illness high, and they’d like the U.S. Department of Labor to do something about it. That’s because although the meat and poultry industry has experienced a decline in cases of injury and illness, numbers reported are still higher than those reported for “all U.S. manufacturing” industries, according to official blog of Capitol Hill.

“The report found some injuries to meat and poultry workers have resulted in fatalities. From 2004 to 2013, 154 workers died on the job. Of the 46 workers who sustained fatal injuries from 2011 to 2013, 19 died as the result of transportation incidents in which the person was struck by a vehicle. Other fatalities were the result of workplace violence, a violent animal, contact with objects or equipment or exposure to harmful substances.”

“The conditions that these workers are forced to endure is an outrage, and have no place in our nation,” says Bob Casey (D-Pa.) “This is a matter of basic justice. The meat and poultry industry must quickly take substantial steps to improve the workplace conditions for those in this industry.”

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), due to forceful exertion or repetition, are some of the most common injuries found in these industries.

The GAO report did offer recommendations on how the Labor Department can help to reduce the rate of injury and illness in the meat and poultry industry:

  • Enable workers to sharpen and change knives regularly so they do not have to exert undue force to make cuts.
  • Offer an ergonomics program to help workers improve problem-solving and hazard identification
  • Provide training for engineers and maintenance personnel in how to prevent and correct ergonomic problems
  • Initiate a medical management program with effective reporting, evaluation, treatment and referrals that is run by healthcare staff trained in MSD prevention.

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