December 18, 2012

Poultry plant workers' safety also at risk, experts say

Advocates and regulators disagree whether increased line speeds could threaten the health of employees.

By LINDSAY WISE/McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Workplace safety experts say a U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to increase line speeds at poultry plants could endanger the low-wage workers who are tasked with sorting and trimming inedible carcasses, a job that used to belong to federal inspectors.

Line workers do their jobs elbow to elbow in many cases and struggle to keep up with current line speeds of 35 birds per minute, said Catherine Singley, a senior policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy organization based in Washington. The USDA's proposal would allow plants to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute.

"The line workers are already at their limit, and so to expect that they're also going to be taking on responsibilities to pull defective carcasses off the line, and there's going to be no negative impact on the health and safety of the workers themselves, it's just illogical," Singley said. "Something has to give."

No data exist to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries, said Elisabeth Hagen, the undersecretary for food safety at the USDA. "We would never put forward something that would inadvertently put others in harm's way," she said.

As a food safety agency, however, the USDA has no power to regulate the safety of workers in the poultry industry, she said. "We simply don't have statutory authority," Hagen said


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