By Deborah Berkowitz, National Employment Law Project
Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released employer-reported data on workplace injuries and illnesses for 2015 that substantially understate the injury rate in the poultry processing industry and obscure the harsh and hazardous conditions faced by America’s 250,000 poultry workers.
Workers in the poultry industry continue to suffer injury and illness rates well above the national average. In fact, for certain illnesses, e.g., musculoskeletal injuries, the rates are multiple times the national average.
A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office found that workers in the meat and poultry industry are facing the same hazardous conditions previously cited by the GAO in 2005—including traumatic injuries from machines and tools, from exposure to chemicals and pathogens, and from fast-paced repetitive tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders. The GAO did not note any significant safety improvements in the industry.
According to the GAO report, workers continue to have their arms mangled in machines, their hands gouged by a neighbor’s hook because they work so fast and stand so close together, and their fingers crushed in equipment lacking safeguards. They continue to suffer from musculoskeletal disorders due to repetitive, forceful exertions, and awkward postures. They continue to get sick from the widespread use of caustic disinfectants.
The 2015 BLS statistics are employer-reported, and that’s the precisely the problem. Three government agencies—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the GAO (in the report cited above)—found that the poultry processing industry is underreporting the serious injuries that occur.
Both OSHA and the GAO found that poultry workers who suffer serious injuries at work are being denied medical treatment. We believe that suggests an effort by poultry plant operators to avoid reporting injuries to the government so as to keep reported rates artificially low.
The BLS employer-reported injury and illness data clearly are a drastic undercount of the injuries and illnesses in the poultry industry. Just look at the facts: Tyson Foods, the largest poultry company, has the fourth-highest number of amputations and hospitalization reported to OSHA of all companies nationwide that come under OSHA’s jurisdiction. Fifty-four workers, in a 15-month period, in just the Tyson Foods plants in federal OSHA states (half of the country), suffered an amputation or other injuries, such as fractures or concussions, that required them to be admitted to a hospital for treatment.
The government has well documented that companies are failing to report injuries that are occurring. Further, the government has found (and they have found this to be widespread in the poultry industry) that the companies are denying injured workers adequate medical care—a tactic that relieves them of the responsibility to report an injury to BLS. That’s because the regulations require that only those injuries that receive “medical treatment” are to be reported.
Conditions are so deplorable in the poultry industry that just four months ago, OSHA issued the first- ever citation to a big poultry company—Pilgrim’s Pride—for delaying adequate medical treatment to injured workers. OSHA had also found this same problem in Allen Harim Foods in Delaware and Wayne Farms. In fact, at Allen Harim Foods, OSHA found that the processing plant had turned its first-aid station into a place “to prevent workers from reporting injuries.”
Major employers within the industry continue to deny workers the right to use the bathroom, deny seriously injured workers adequate medical treatment, and continue to expose workers to the most hazardous conditions. The meat and poultry industry report the eight-highest numbers of amputations and hospitalizations to OSHA of any industry in the nation. This is an industry with record-breaking profits. These companies should be complying with the law and providing safe conditions and treating their workers humanely, instead of hiding behind phony self-reported statistics.