Ignoring CDC Guidance, USDA Allows 15 Poultry Plants to Raise Line Speeds, Putting Workers at Greater Risk of COVID and Injury

Study Reveals Poor Safety Record of Plants That Received Line Speed Waivers

Washington, DC—In a new study released today, the National Employment Law Project analyzed the safety record of 15 poultry plants that—in the midst of the COVID pandemic in April 2020—received line speed waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing them to speed up poultry processing lines 25 percent, to a pace of 175 birds per minute for the workers on the line. The USDA’s move goes against CDC recommendations on how to limit COVID spread in meatpacking plants.

Using publicly available data, NELP found that every plant had a poor safety record. All 15 plants had reports of severe injuries (including amputations), a history of OSHA violations, and/or were the site of a recent COVID-19 outbreak.

“Even when tens of thousands of workers are getting sick and in some cases dying as a result of workplace exposure to COVID-19, poultry plants are being granted permission by the USDA to speed up production lines, when they should be slowing them down to ensure social distancing following CDC guidelines,” said Shayla Thompson, NELP’s government affairs manager and lead author of the study.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for the meat and poultry industry include keeping workers at least six feet apart on production lines and reducing—not increasing—line speeds.

Poultry workers, who are disproportionately workers of color, already suffer staggeringly high rates of work-related injury and illness—rates 60 percent higher than the average industry. Increasing line speeds only exacerbates the dangerous working conditions in the plants.

NELP research revealed the following key findings:

  • All 10 of the plants located in a state under federal OSHA’s jurisdiction had recently reported severe injuries to OSHA. These severe injuries included crushed hands, full finger amputations, dislocated hips, bone fractures, and electrocution. Three plants, including plants run by Tyson Foods, Wayne Farms, and George’s Processing, had four such reported severe injuries in the last few years.
  • A Wayne Farms plant in Danville, Arkansas had three reported severe injuries in 2018 alone—cases that also include amputations and a fracture.
  • In a George’s Processing plant in Cassville, Missouri, all of the reported injury cases involved a worker having a finger amputated.
  • More than half the plants (8 out of 15) that received line speed waivers in April 2020 have had documented outbreaks of COVID-19. Several had outbreaks in April, the same month in which the waivers were granted. One plant—Wayne Farms in Albertville, Alabama—had a COVID-19-related death.

“Black and brown workers are essential to the meat and poultry industry, but they are being treated by these companies as disposable. Poultry plants have no business speeding up production lines during a public health crisis. These plants should be held accountable for the safety risks they are recklessly exposing workers and their families to,” said Thompson.

Overwhelming evidence supports the conclusion that allowing poultry processing plants to operate with faster line speeds than allowable by law is inconsistent with the USDA’s waiver regulation, undermines the rulemaking process, violates the Administrative Procedures Act, and most of all, endangers both workers and their communities. 

The study used publicly available federal OSHA violation and inspection data from May 2015 to May 2020, severe injury data from January 2015 to December 2019, and a list of waiver recipients from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

USDA Allows Poultry Plants to Raise Line Speeds, Exacerbating Risk of COVID-19 Outbreaks and Injury

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