Better data needed on injuries at meat plants, GAO says

By Stephen Davies

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WASHINGTON, May 25, 2016 - Workers at meat and poultry plants continue to get injured and sick at higher rates than workers in manufacturing overall, the Government Accountability Office said in a report that recommended the federal government collect better data.

Injury and illness rates dropped from an estimated 9.8 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2004 to 5.7 in 2013, the report said. Despite the decrease, “meat and poultry workers continue to face worksite hazards that put them at risk of severe and lasting injury,” GAO said.

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Obtaining accurate data is a challenge. Recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections “suggest that more injuries occur than are reported, although the extent of underreporting is not known, and vulnerable workers such as immigrants and noncitizens may fear for their livelihoods and feel pressured not to report injuries.”

Employers may underreport “because of concerns about potential costs,” the report said, adding that yet another challenge is that the Labor Department “only collects detailed data for those injuries and illnesses that result in a worker having to take days away from work.”

Data also “do not include injuries and illnesses such as musculoskeletal disorders that result in a worker being placed on work restriction or transferred to another job,” GAO said. “Further, (the Labor Department) does not have complete injury and illness data on meat and poultry sanitation workers because they may not be classified in the meat and poultry industry if they work for contractors.”

“Plant workers told us that meat and poultry plants are primarily concerned with production, and employers do not want the line to slow down even when the plant is understaffed,” GAO said. “Industry officials we met with disagreed.”

GAO recommended that OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics study how they could improve data-gathering. It also recommended that Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell “direct the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) conduct a study of the injuries and illnesses these workers experience, including their causes and how they are reported. Given the challenges to gaining access to this population, NIOSH may want to coordinate with OSHA to develop ways to initiate this study.”

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David Michaels, Labor's assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, said OSHA and BLS would participate in a National Academy of Sciences study on data collection. In a letter to GAO that was included in the report, Michaels noted that poultry workers have an injury rate more than 50 percent higher than the injury rate for all U.S. workers.

About 526,000 people are employed in the animal slaughtering and processing industry, GAO said.  “In 2014, more than 30 million beef cattle, 100 million hogs, 200 million turkeys, and 8 billion chickens were slaughtered in the United States,” according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

USDA inspectors “experience injuries and illnesses similar to those experienced by other meat and poultry workers,” GAO said. According to USDA's 2014 workers' compensation claims data, falls, slips, and trips were the most frequent causes of injuries among meat and poultry inspectors.

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