GAO report examines meat, poultry workforce safety

GAO report notes improved worker safety record of meat and poultry industry over last 10 years; recordkeeping practices get close look.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlights the improved worker safety record of the meat and poultry industry over the last 10 years, according to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI).

Based on the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 2014 incidence rates for non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses reached a new, all-time industry low of 5.5 cases per 100 full-time workers per year. Historic BLS data reveal that the meat and poultry industry has shown continuous improvement over the years, nearly halving the injury and illness rate from 9.8 per 100 workers in 2004, the last time the GAO published a report on worker safety in the meat and poultry industry, NAMI said in a statement.

While the report raises concerns about recordkeeping in the industry, a recent Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) special emphasis evaluating recordkeeping in the meat and poultry industry and several others did not find regular under-recording of injuries, as alleged in the GAO report.

“Worker safety has been a key priority in the meat industry over the last 25 years, and the positive results of our efforts are clear,” NAMI president and chief executive officer Barry Carpenter said. “There is always room for improvement, and we will look closely at the GAO recommendations to see how they can best be implemented in the industry.”

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, NAMI said. That year, the U.S. meat industry, together with OSHA and the United Food & Commercial Workers union, developed "Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines for the Meat Packing Industry" — guidelines that OSHA called a “model” for other industries.

The National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Assn. issued a joint statement noting that they fully cooperated with GAO for more than a year, through stakeholder interviews and processing plant visits, as GAO worked on its report.

The poultry organizations said they are pleased to see the report emphasize the fact that injuries and illnesses have decreased dramatically in the poultry processing industry over the past several years.

U.S. poultry processors highlighted advancements in worker safety and the ongoing efforts for continued improvement. The incidence of occupational injuries and illnesses within the poultry sector’s slaughter and processing workforce has decreased 81% in the last 20 years and continues to decline, according to the BLS 2014 "Injury & Illness Report."

In fact, the poultry processing industry’s injury and illness rate of 4.3 is on par with all manufacturing jobs and is decreasing at a much faster rate. This rate also is much lower than all food manufacturing in general, the poultry groups said.

Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses — especially musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome — by recognizing the value of implementing ergonomics and medical intervention principles and working with OSHA to develop guidelines that further help protect the workforce, the groups said.

In addition to OSHA records, plant medical clinics/first aid stations maintain records of each visit. Each plant has a safety manager on site whose role includes accident investigation and root cause analysis for the explicit purpose of reducing future reoccurrences.

Poultry processing was included in a recent OSHA National Emphasis Program on recordkeeping, and no extensive violations of underreporting were identified.

While the past 20 years has seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers and rates of injury and illnesses, the poultry industry said it will continue to seek new and innovative ways to protect its workforce, including data collection and record keeping.

The GAO report was requested by Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee.

"All workers should have access to a safe and healthy workplace and be able to earn a living without fearing for their safety,” Murray said. “I will continue to push to make sure every worker, in every industry, has the safe work environment they deserve.”

She called on the U.S. Department of Labor to strengthen data collection on worker injuries and illnesses and improve classification of employment and illnesses.

The GAO report is available at www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-337.

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