By Sarah Borron
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the federal government’s watchdog agency, just released a report entitled, “Better Outreach, Collaboration, and Information Needed to Help Protect Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants.”
It’s no secret that meat and poultry slaughter and processing are among the most dangerous jobs in America. This blistering GAO report details a culture of fear where workers don’t even feel comfortable speaking up when they are regularly denied bathroom breaks.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspects meat and poultry plants to enforce worker safety standards. OSHA visits plants when a plant has high injury rates or when workers file complaints. It also conducts random inspections. Federal food safety inspectors from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are stationed at the plants alongside workers to monitor food safety standards, and OSHA addresses safety for those federal inspectors as well as plant workers. OSHA and FSIS have an agreement to promote collaboration and information sharing on safety concerns at plants, but the GAO found that agreement to be stronger in theory than practice.
While whistleblowers in any industry risk retaliation from their employers, meat and poultry workers are at particular risk. These low-wage workers often have unequal bargaining power. Nearly 30 percent of meat and poultry plant workers are immigrants, triple the rate of manufacturing as a whole. If they don’t have legal status in the U.S., retaliation for whistleblowing could include deportation. The safeguards that OSHA is supposed to provide for vulnerable workers in dangerous industries aren’t working for meat and poultry plant workers.
Here’s some of what the GAO report has to say:
Denying Bathroom Breaks: Workers are supposed to be able to take bathroom breaks when needed, but GAO found that bathroom access is a problem. Workers described repeated “delayed or denied” bathroom breaks and long lines. These conditions force workarounds, such as not eating or drinking for a whole shift to avoid having to go to the bathroom. Workers reported kidney and other health problems that result from waiting too long. OSHA claims bathrooms aren’t a priority, since there are so many other hazards to consider and relatively fewer complaints from workers, but GAO contradicts the claim thoroughly.
Lack of Anonymity and Privacy when OSHA Visits: During OSHA inspections, the plant operators choose which workers will talk with OSHA, thereby preventing anonymity. Sometimes OSHA interviews employees while they continue working the line. The interview is not distraction-free and certainly not private. The OSHA inspection manual states, “A free and open exchange of information between OSHA inspectors and employees is essential to effective inspections.” In reality, anonymous, off-site interviews of workers only tend to happen when arranged by worker advocacy groups or unions—not OSHA.
Inadequate Medical Care for Injured Workers: Workers often face injury and pain from repetitive motion. The GAO found in both this and previous investigations that plant management and on-site medical care delay or deny treatment to workers, rather than referring them to a physician outside the plant. OSHA evaluates plants in part on injury rates, which creates an incentive to minimize injury for the plant. Plant managers may retaliate against those who seek medical help, giving plant workers one more reason not to speak up in the first place. Workers GAO interviewed in three states reported that they don’t complain about health issues for fear of losing their jobs or being reprimanded.
The lack of respect to workers in this secretive industry is astounding—we must demand transparency and better treatment for food system workers.