Heading in the Right Direction: OSHA Nails Poultry Processor for Ergonomics

by Matt Shudtz

June 22, 2015

Last week, OSHA issued noteworthy citations against a poultry slaughtering facility in Delaware. The agency is using its General Duty Clause to hold Allen Harim Foods in Harbeson, Delaware responsible for ergonomic hazards that plague the entire industry—hazards involving the repetitive cutting and twisting motions that lead to musculoskeletal disorders like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

This case follows another from October of last year, when, in response to a complaint by workers and their advocates from the Southern Poverty Law Center, OSHA cited Wayne Farms in Jack, Alabama for General Duty Clause violations, also related to ergonomic hazards. As it turns out, the Wayne Farms case was a shot across the bow for an industry that subjects its workers to punishingly repetitive work in a variety of situations. Today’s announcement may be evidence of a trend developing in OSHA enforcement.

It’s a trend that’s encouraging for poultry plant workers and close observers of the industry because these are hazards that have gone on, unabated, for years. The industry lauds itself for declining injury rates, but the rules for recording musculoskeletal injuries are complex and employers know all the tricks for avoiding reporting. In both the Wayne Farms and Allen Harim cases, OSHA found clear evidence of the employers skirting the recordkeeping rules.

A recent NIOSH investigation at another Delmarva poultry processing facility exemplifies the problem of underreporting and the connection to musculoskeletal injuries. There, the employer’s recorded injury rates were dropping precipitously in recent years, to below the national average for the industry. Yet, when NIOSH talked to workers and ran voluntary nerve conduction tests, the agency found that 34 percent of the workers had symptoms that met the case definition for carpal tunnel syndrome and 67 percent had abnormal nerve conduction results (which suggests a high likelihood of carpal tunnel either being present or coming soon).

Employers in this industry run their workers into the ground because there’s no strong standard to combat the hazards of dangerous work speeds. After OSHA issued a major ergonomics rule in 2001, Congress used a little-known procedural move to block the rule. Since then, the agency has failed to try again, even despite a petition from poultry workers’ advocates for a rule tailored to the hazards in the poultry and meatpacking industries.

Without a rule, enforcing protections through the General Duty Clause is the next best option for OSHA. But it’s a limited solution that relies on the deterrent effect of a few strong cases to—hopefully—prompt widespread reform in an industry that has historically treated workers like disposable cogs. Strong cases like this are a first step, but workers need more than a shot across the bow, they need strong standards that apply to every worker in every plant. 

Celeste Monforton has a great post about the case here, calling out Allen Harim for doing more to promote animal welfare than human welfare.

Tagged as: poultry OSHA
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Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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