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Are Workers Losing Lives and Limbs to Satisfy Production Goals?

Sandy Smith

In an article written by Issac Arnsdorf and co-published with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ProPublica highlights the conflict between worker safety and health and production goals at chicken processing plants.

At first glance, Fieldale Farms, a chicken processing facility in Gainesville, Georgia, appears to be focused on safety. A big sign outside of the facility promotes the slogan “Think Safe, Work Safe.”

Approximately 1,900 workers are employed by Fieldale Farms, and according to public records obtained by ProPublica, workers there probably have a higher than average chance of losing fingers and even their lives as a result of their work for Fieldale Farms.

In 2009, OSHA cited Fieldale Farms with 22 alleged safety and health violations and proposed fines of $73,275. The violations included two repeat violations – for failure to provide standard guardrails for open-sided platforms and using flexible cords and cables as a substitute for fixed wiring; 18 serious violations - bloodborne pathogens and failure to make the Hepatitis B vaccine available to employees exposed to bloodborne pathogens, lack of safety training, obstructed exit routes, noise and electrical hazard safety training was not provided to all employees, exit routes were obstructed, exposing workers to noise and electrical hazards; failure to provide personal protective equipment and lack of machine guards; and two other-than-serious citations for failure to certify that all hazards of the permit-required confined space had been eliminated, and that bloodborne pathogen training had been conducted and employees who declined the Hepatitis B vaccine had signed a declination form.

These citations don’t even begin to tell the story of workplace safety and the reality of working at Fieldale Farms. A quick search for the company in OSHA’s inspection database reveals 17 inspection visits from the agency since October 2009, some the result of complaints, some planned and one as the result of a fatality. To put this into context, there are approximately 2,100 compliance officers spread out over 8 million businesses. OSHA is able to inspect roughly 100,000 work sites each year, which means that many workplaces will never host an OSHA inspection. On average, the odds of a company that stays under OSHA's radar  being inspected is once every 80 years. Fieldale Farms averages nearly two inspections a year at its facilities.

In an excerpt from the article “Trump’s USDA Is Letting Factories With Troubling Safety Records Slaughter Chickens Even Faster,” which discusses several chicken processing companies and the workers who are impacted by unsafe working conditions and faster lines, reporter Isaac Arnsorf writes:

“… the Fieldale plant repeatedly broke safety rules, and managers clashed with OSHA over its enforcement efforts, according to hundreds of pages of records obtained by ProPublica.

Inside the plant, there’s an insulated room for storing ice. Ice cubes fall from the ceiling into a huge mound; they then slide through turning screw-shaped blades that break up the ice and feed the cubes into the factory. The blades are covered by a grate in the floor.

One morning in 2014, a worker went inside to fetch some ice. Some of the bars in the floor grate were loose or missing, but the worker couldn’t see the gaps buried under the ice. His foot fell through the faulty grate and onto the screw-shaped blades, severing his leg below the knee. He crawled out of the ice house and cried for help.

‘He’s bleeding bad and he’s in shock,’ an employee told the 911 dispatcher. ‘Please tell them to hurry up before the man dies.’

The worker survived, but his leg was so damaged that all but five inches had to be amputated.”

Despite incidents like this and others, Fieldale applied for, and received, permission to speed up its production lines. Faster production lines mean that the same number of workers can process larger numbers of chickens. It likely means higher injury rates, particularly given Fieldale Farms history of workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

In general, animal production facilities have high rates of recordable injuries and illnesses (and the highest rates of finger amputations); a recordable rate of 6.1 in poultry and egg production compared to mining at 2.4, construction at 3.1 and manufacturing at 3.5. For this and other reasons, OSHA has opposed speeding up production lines at these facilities.

“Increasing line speeds will increase poultry workers’ exposure to all of these hazards,” former OSHA Administrator David Michaels, said in a 2012 memo quoted by ProPublica about a USDA proposal at the time to increase line speeds. An OSHA spokesperson acknowledged to ProPublica that the agency has no jurisdiction over line speed, despite evidence that increased line speeds increase the possibility for injuries and illnesses for workers.

ProPublica notes, “Scientific studies, including both government-funded and industry-sponsored, have established that going faster worsens the risk of repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. There is also evidence that feeling rushed or struggling to keep up with the work pace are factors in traumatic injuries.”

The poultry processing industry, however, sees it differently, claiming that since 1994, recordable injuries and illnesses have decreased by 83 percent.

“Employee safety continues to be of utmost importance to our industry,” said the Joint Industry Safety and Health Council in a statement in November 2018. “The poultry industry continues to focus its efforts on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, by recognizing the benefit of implementing ergonomics and medical intervention principles, while continually effecting new technology and automation in the workplace. Though the past two decades have shown a notable decrease in the numbers and rates of injury and illnesses, the poultry industry is steadfast in pursuing new and inventive ways to safeguard our workforce.”

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which granted Fieldale Farms permission to speed up its production lines, responded to concerns about the implications of faster production lines on worker safety by stating, “FSIS has neither the legal authority nor the expertise to regulate or enforce workplace standards for establishment employees.”

The poultry industry, in its comments to FSIS, clearly believe it is capable of policing itself and providing a safe work environment for employees, even with faster production speeds.

While it’s too soon to know if the faster speeds equate to an increase in injuries, illnesses and fatalities in the poultry industry, the ProPublica article raises the age-old conflict of which is more important: productivity or safety.

The reality is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. No business wants “defects” in its processes, whether those issues involve employee safety or production errors. An employee injury or production errors both cost an employer time and money, not to mention the personal cost to the injured worker and his or her family and coworkers.

Employers can capture, track, investigate and report on all incidents and near-misses, including injuries and illnesses, spills, property damage and vehicle incidents. By recording root-causes associated with each incident, organizations can trend this data across locations or business units and implement corrective actions that can have an enormous impact on their business, improving production and reducing injuries, illnesses and rework.

Defect Tracking software streamlines the recording and investigation of defects and the completion of corrective and preventive actions (CAPAs) to ensure quality control. It allows organizations to identify product defects early on and take immediate action, before small problems turn into more serious issues. The software helps to limit long delays and production slowdowns that can follow the discovery of a defect by tracking and reporting on product defects in real-time. Customers receive more reliable shipments and the business has more comprehensive view of potential trouble areas.

About the Author: Award-winning newspaper reporter and business-to-business journalist Sandy Smith is global content leader for Intelex Technologies Inc. Before joining Intelex, Smith served as content director for leading occupational safety and health publication EHS Today for 10 years and has written about EHS for 20+ years.

October 08, 2019 @ 10:39 AM EDT Manufacturing, Food and Beverage Health & Safety, Operations

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