Saturday, November 25, 2006

Immigrants In Meatpacking: Not Much Help From OSHA

The Dallas Morning News ends a three part series about immigrants' lives in the town of Cactus, Texas with a story about hazardous work in the meatpacking industry. It's a familiar story: exposure to fast lines, sharp knives, ergonomic hazards and chemicals by immigrant -- mostly undocumented -- workers afraid to complain and unknowledgeable about their rights, all amidst the backdrop of consolidation of the industry into four giant corporations, relocation to rural areas, and a drop in unionization.

At the Cactus plant, inspectors said employees weren't familiar with information about health hazards on the site.

In the fall of 2003, for instance, workers in the "Slaughter and Blood Pit Area where the stun and stick operation takes place" complained about chlorine mists, OSHA reported.

The calcium hypochlorite solution led to bloody noses, vomiting, headaches and irritation to their eyes, nose and throat, the report said.

Employee interviews found that Swift "had not provided training" on the hazards from the solution, OSHA said.

Twenty-six former employees of the Swift plant are suing the company for wrongful termination, saying they were let go as a result of filing workers compensation claims after being injured on the job. The workers list injuries ranging from slipping on greasy floors to falling off ladders to being struck by a forklift.

Swift has denied the charges in the suit, which was filed in a Dallas County court.
Many workers simply accept the risks even in dangerous situations, critics say.
Some immigrant workers, whether legal or illegal, hesitate to file complaints. Workers often don't know their rights or fear getting tied up with immigration authorities.

"We don't have a choice but to put up with it. Or let them fire us. We have too many years invested," said the longtime worker.

The article also spends some time on OSHA's failure to enforce the law -- what laws there are -- and the agency's inability to accurately assess how big a problem there is -- particularly since the 2001 repeal of OSHA's ergonomics standard and changes in its recordkeeping rules.
The industry also maintains that total "recordable" injuries have declined 70 percent since 1990, a figure that critics say doesn't account for the full extent of problems inside plants.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees worker safety at U.S. companies, does not collect injury figures for every plant.

Although manufacturing facilities must log worker injuries at the plants, they are only required to do so if the injuries can be proved to have occurred onsite.
OSHA inspectors can request the records during inspections; otherwise the log sheets aren't collected. The agency inspects about 75 of the more than 5,000 meatpacking plants each year.

"It's been a long time since OSHA's been here," said one longtime employee at the Cactus plant who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "When OSHA is here, everything moves nice and slow."


OSHA figures show a decline in meatpacking injuries and illnesses in 2002, the first year of new record-keeping that omitted a special category for repetitive-motion injuries.

The percentage of workers injured dropped to less than 12 percent, from 20 percent a year earlier.

"The reporting is really going underground," said Ms. Nowell of the union. "This is the biggest category of injury that's happening across the board in this country, and we're not recording it as such."
Industry experts aren't confident of major improvements in the near future.
Industry critics say the safety of workers needs as much attention as food safety. And pressure from consumers, much like a century ago, is the only way to force the industry and regulators to make faster improvements, said [Donald] Stull, the University of Kansas anthropology professor.

"There isn't the public outcry," he said. "The general public, as long as their food is cheap, as long as it's safe, as long as the workers aren't really that much like them, they can look the other way."