Victory for Poultry Workers: USDA Withdraws Proposed Rule to Speed Up Poultry Lines

Washington, DC—Following is a statement from Debbie Berkowitz, program director for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project, and a former senior OSHA official:

“We applaud the Biden-Harris administration’s withdrawal of the previous administration’s proposed rule to increase line speeds in U.S. poultry plants, which would have made the already dangerous jobs of poultry workers even more dangerous.

“The proposed rule would have allowed poultry plants to crank up line speeds from an already fast 140 birds per minute to a breakneck 175 birds per minute. This would have led to more worker injuries and further COVID outbreaks in an industry that has already seen some of the country’s largest outbreaks.

“The proposal, put forward by Trump administration officials and industry lobbyists, would have allowed poultry plants to increase line speeds in the middle of a pandemic, despite the Centers for Disease Control having told the industry that it needed to slow down line speeds to move workers six feet apart to protect them from COVID-19.

“This is a true victory for all of the 250,000 poultry workers in the U.S.—the majority of whom are Black, Latinx, and immigrant workers—and for the coalition of worker rights, public health, consumer rights, and animal welfare groups that has fought the line speed increases for the past four years.

“The proposed line speed increases would have disproportionately harmed workers of color and their communities. Workers in the poultry industry already face injury rates 60% higher than the national average, and illness rates five times as high. And we know this is an undercount. The Government Accountability Office found that the rate would be much higher if not for the faulty data collection methods and widespread underreporting problems prevalent across the meat and poultry industry.

“The proposal ignored decades of research showing that increased line speeds in poultry plants leads to increased injuries—including serious repetitive trauma disorders. In fact, the poultry industry has among the highest incidences of reported severe injuries, such as amputations and injuries requiring hospitalization.

“There is more the Biden-Harris administration must do. It should revoke all line speed ‘waivers’ given to poultry plants over the last few years that allowed individual plants to operate faster. These were all issued under cover of darkness with no transparency or public input.

“After four years of weak oversight, the relevant federal agencies—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (now tasked by President Biden to start enforcement and promulgate standards to protect workers from COVID-19), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—must start coordinating to conduct investigations and inspections of workplace hazards in the meat and poultry industry to ensure that workers are protected. Meat and poultry workers should not be forced by greedy employers to sacrifice their health and their lives in order to put food on our tables and bring in a paycheck.”

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Deborah Berkowitz

Worker Health and Safety Program Director, National Employment Law Project

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