Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Daily Toll Of Meatpacking Workers

Lance Compa and Jamie Fellner have written an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post today that succinctly sums up the serious health and safety problems faced by this country’s meatpacking workers. The article is so good, you just have to read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:
But meatpacking and poultry workers face more than hard work in tough settings. They perform the most dangerous factory jobs in the country. U.S. meat and poultry employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. In doing so, they violate the right of workers to a safe place of employment.
"Faster, faster, get that product out the door!" is the industry byword. The results are cuts, amputations, skin disease, permanent arm and shoulder damage, and even death from the force of repeated hard cutting motions. When injured employees seek workers' compensation claims for their juries, they are told, "You got hurt at home, not on the job."

The workers who face these hazards are, increasingly, immigrants, most from Mexico and Central America but also from many other parts of the world. Companies exploit their vulnerabilities: limited English skills; uncertainty about their rights; alarm about their immigration status if they are undocumented workers.
Compa and Fellner are authors of a report by Human Rights Watch issued last January entitled “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.”

The authors also discuss how little the federal government is doing to prevent the back, shoulder and other “ergonomic” injuries faced by meatpacking workers.
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has "no specific standard that allows OSHA to cite employers for hazards" relating to line speed and repetitive stress injuries. Indeed, job safety enforcement officials do not even have data "to assess the appropriate speed at which the lines should operate." This information does not exist because companies refuse to let government regulators or independent researchers measure line speed, examine workers' knife-cutting motions or study musculoskeletal injuries from repeated hard cutting.
And they point out how injuries in these plants are undercounted, partly because many of the injured are contract workers whose injuries don’t get counted as part of the meatpacking industry. (This is the same problem that has been identified in the refinery industry.

Finally, there’s the same old problem facing millions of American workers today. The most effective way to address these problems is to organize and act through labor unions. But the meatpacking industry has been successful blocking unions as well:

When workers seek to organize to protect themselves, meatpacking companies use tactics of fear, intimidation and interference to block union organizing efforts. For example, Smithfield Foods fired union supporters and threatened to close its massive hog slaughtering plant in Tar Heel, N.C., when workers there tried to form a union. Company police have targeted union supporters for harassment, arrests and beatings. Some of these violations of workers' organizing rights go back eight years, but National Labor Relations Board remedies have not been enforced.