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

Introduction

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has approved the requests of 15 large poultry plants to squeeze workers even closer together on production lines and increase line speeds. This will endanger the health and lives of poultry workers and the people in their communities, who are already being hit hard by COVID-19.

Publicly available data reveal that all 15 plants have a record of severe injuries (including amputations), were cited for violations by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and/or are the site of a recent COVID-19 outbreak (see Figure). Over half the plants have seen recent COVID-19 outbreaks,[i] with one plant reporting a worker fatality and another plant closing shortly after the USDA decision due to the rampant spread of COVID-19.

This irresponsible and reckless action by USDA, taken behind closed doors, will directly increase the risks to poultry workers and their communities of severe injury, illness, and death.

The USDA did not make the individual plants’ applications publicly available, despite issuing the highest number of line speed waivers in a 30-day period since the waiver procedure was put in place two years ago.

Overwhelming evidence shows that allowing poultry processing plants to operate with faster line speeds will dramatically worsen the already unsafe working conditions in poultry plants.[ii] Poultry workers already suffer staggeringly high rates of work-related injury and illness—rates 60 percent higher than the average industry.[iii]

Overwhelming evidence shows that allowing poultry processing plants to operate with faster line speeds will dramatically worsen the already unsafe working conditions in poultry plants

In April 2020, 15 large poultry plants requested and received approval from USDA to increase their line speeds, permitting them to kill and process more birds per minute than legally allowed under current USDA regulations. These approvals, knowns as line speed waivers because they waive the requirements of current regulations to limit line speeds, were given to plants owned by Tyson Foods, Wayne Farms, Mountaire Farms, and George’s Processing.

These waivers were granted under the cover of darkness, with no notice to the public and no request for public comment. The plants will now be allowed to speed up their slaughter and production lines by 25 percent, from the legally allowable rate of 140 birds per minutes to a new limit of 175 birds per minute.

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Endnotes

[i] See https://www.4029tv.com/article/11-poultry-workers-in-northwest-arkansas-test-positive-for-coronavirus/32646191#; http://wslmradio.com/2020/04/22/harrison-county-health-department-confirms-4th-covid-19-death/; https://www.corydondemocrat.com/2020/04/22/covid-19-cases-confirmed-at-long-term-care-facility-tyson/; https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2020/05/01/mississippi-coronavirus-disease-spreads-among-chicken-plant-workers/3041482001/; https://www.wkyufm.org/post/one-worker-dead-more-200-infected-coronavirus-hits-ky-meatpackers#stream/0 (involving fatality); https://www.14news.com/2020/04/22/tyson-foods-plant-robards-ky-has-positive-cases-covid-/; https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2020/04/29/coronavirus-kentucky-tyson-plant-pauses-after-70-cases-confirmed/3047448001/; https://www.wxii12.com/article/surry-county-poultry-processing-plant-reports-coronavirus-outbreak-officials-say/32481526#https://www.waff.com/2020/05/21/wayne-farms-testing-workers-after-one-confirmed-covid-case/; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-meat-focus/elbow-to-elbow-north-america-meat-plant-workers-fall-ill-walk-off-jobs-idUSKCN21V0WM; https://whnt.com/news/northeast-alabama/family-of-wayne-farms-albertville-employee-blames-plant-for-covid-19-uptick/; http://www.sandmountainreporter.com/free_share/article_e69245a2-8401-11ea-9b6a-0b73348e3713.html; https://www.wral.com/coronavirus/mountaire-farms-testing-nets-74-covid-19-infections-outbreaks-growing-at-nc-food-plants/19076115/; https://www.4029tv.com/article/11-poultry-workers-in-northwest-arkansas-test-positive-for-coronavirus/32646191#

[ii] See U.S. Dep’t of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016 Employer-Reported Workplace Injuries and Illnesses (Annual), at Summary Tbl. 1 (incidence rates—detailed industry level), Supplemental News Release Tbl. 12 (highest rates for total illness cases), available at https://www.bls.gov/web/osh.supp.toc.htm.); See Nat’l Inst. for Occupational Safety & Health, Evaluation of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Other Musculoskeletal Disorders among Employees at a Poultry Processing Plant 17 (June 2015), available at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2014-0040-3232.pdf. See, Evaluation of Musculoskeletal Disorders and Traumatic Injuries among Employees at a Poultry Processing Plant 11 (Mar. 2014), available at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2012-0125-3204.pdf

[iii] https://www.nelp.org/publication/nelp-congressional-testimony-on-harsh-conditions-endured-by-americas-poultry-workers/; https://www.nelp.org/publication/osha-severe-injury-data-from-29-states/

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