Worker Safety at Meat and Poultry Plants

GAO-16-337_fig7Buying meat for your summer cookout is certainly faster than hunting for it. But that doesn’t mean that getting all of those burgers, wings, and hot dogs from the farm to the grill is easy. Today’s WatchBlog takes a look at the risks of injuries and illnesses to meat and poultry workers, and what the federal government can do to better support worker safety.

Prep work

It took more than half a million people to prepare the more than 30 million beef cattle, 100 million hogs, 200 million turkeys, and 8 billion chickens that went into the food supply in the United States in 2014.

And, although meat and poultry plants have increased automation, workers still rely on sharp knives, hooks, and saws, as well as potentially dangerous machinery, to slaughter and process meat. Moreover, automation requires workers to perform repetitive motions that have been associated with tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other musculoskeletal disorders.

Figure 8: Poultry Workers Cutting and Trimming Chickens

(Excerpted from GAO-16-337)

Injuries in the meat and poultry industry have declined over the years, but the rate is still higher than in other U.S. industries.

Figure 4: Injury and Illness Rates in the Meat and Poultry Industry, Compared with Rates in All U.S. Manufacturing, Calendar Years 2004 through 2013

(Excerpted from GAO-16-337)

Limited data

The Department of Labor is responsible for gathering data on all worker injury and illness rates, as well as ensuring safe and healthy working conditions. However, Labor may not have all the data.

Workers may underreport injuries and illnesses because they are afraid of losing their jobs. And employers may underreport because they are worried about having to pay the associated costs.

Also, Labor only has detailed data for injuries and illnesses that cause a worker to take days off of work. For example, Labor doesn’t count injuries that result in restricted work—meaning temporary reassignment, working fewer hours, or not being able to perform all duties—or transfers to a different job at the same plant.

Such limits raise questions about whether the federal government is doing all it can to collect the data it needs to support worker protection and workplace safety. We recommended that Labor improve its data collection in the meat and poultry industry—to learn more, check out the full report.

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