Monday, October 10, 2005

Bird Flu and Poultry Workers

Back in the mid 1980's AFSCME and other unions that represented health care workers petitioned OSHA for a bloodborne pathogens standard. In the AFSCME petition for the bloodborne pathogens standard, there was also a request that OSHA add communicable diseases to the Hazard Communication Standard. At that time (and still today), the HCS only required that workers be trained about the hazards of toxic chemicals, not workplace-acquired infectious disease that may make them sick or kill them.

Sounds like we still need it:
North Carolina poultry workers say they've been left in the dark as the world faces the looming threat of a potentially
deadly bird flu hopscotching around the globe.

Mariano Castro, 37, a quality control worker at a huge Case Farms poultry processing plant in Morganton, wondered why the company hadn't held meetings to tell its workers about the potential risks.

"It's kind of terrifying," said Leonel Escobar, 29, who makes $7.75 an hour to slice up to 25 chicken legs a minute. "I want to know what the company would do if the flu did come here."

A deadly strain of avian flu has killed at least 60 people in Asia, most of them poultry workers. Authorities in Turkey and Romania confirmed their first cases of the disease over the weekend and the European countries began slaughtering thousands of domestic fowl on Sunday to stop the spread.
So far, the bird flu is only transmitted to humans directly from infected birds, but experts fear that if it evolves to human-to-human transmission, it could quickly become a pandemic that could kill millions.

The avian flu, which started in Asia, has recently been reported among birds in Romania.

Poultry employers say there's nothing to worry about, yet:
Flocks are kept in enclosed barns, away from wild birds. Workers clean boots in bleach water. Farm traffic is restricted.

Maryland-based Case Farms is aware of concerns of the avian flu, but compliance director Ken Wilson said it would be premature to spread fear by alerting workers. Workers would be notified "when it was appropriate," he said.

Officials with Arkansas meat-processing giant Tyson Foods Inc., which runs a processing plant in Wilkesboro, did not return calls.

North Carolina medical epidemiologist Kristina Simeonsson said the risk that humans will contract the deadly avian flu strain is "very low." She suggested state-funded vaccinations for all 25,000 North Carolina poultry workers and training them to properly use their gear.
State funded vaccinations? That would be interesting, considering there's no vaccine, and there won't be an effective vaccine until the pandemic is well under way. By that time, of course, transmission from poultry will the least of their worries.

Union leaders are a bit more skeptical of employers' good intentions:
The lack of a campaign to inform poultry workers indicate they are seen as "expendable workforce" because they're poor, largely Hispanic and undocumented, said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.
More here.