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US Chicken Industry Defends Worker Safety Record

29 December 2014

US - US poultry industry associations have hit out at the reaction of the country's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on the sector's worker safety record describing it as as "perplexing".

The US Poultry & Egg Association and National Chicken Council take exception to the recent OSHA citation against Wayne Farms for alleged safety violations at its plant in Jack, Alabama, involving musculoskeletal disorders and other workplace hazards. OSHA’s investigation into Wayne Farms was rooted in a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an activist group with a long history of animosity toward the poultry industry.

The associations said the OSHA’s accusations of wrongdoing lack evidence and are simply unfounded. OSHA incorrectly portrays an undeserved negative image of the entire poultry industry despite its outstanding record of improvement in employee health and safety, particularly over the past three decades.

The poultry industry finds it ironic that OSHA, in effect, is attacking the very same safety guidelines that it developed in cooperation with the poultry industry many years ago. In fact, this past summer OSHA and USDA issued a joint communication supporting “effective efforts by the poultry industry to protect the safety and health of employees.”

The associations said that the poultry industry’s record of outstanding advancements in reducing ergonomic risks is based on fact. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveals that poultry processing plants have reduced the rate of workplace illness, including musculoskeletal injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, by 62 per cent in the past decade. BLS data further indicate that 'Total Recordable Injury and Illness' in poultry plants has dropped from 22.7 per cent of employees in 1994, down to just 4.5 per cent in 2013.

They said that in its recent citation, OSHA references an ambiguous section of federal law enacted in 1970. Commonly known as the General Duty Clause, it states that employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace.

The poultry industry believes that imposing the General Duty Clause should require more than simple observation of job tasks. There should also be specific evidence of hazards that are not being addressed, evidence that is lacking in OSHA’s citation against Wayne Farms.

In the citation in October the OSHA proposed fines of $102,600 on Wayne Farms.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr David Michaels said: "OSHA found that workers in this plant were exposed to safety and musculoskeletal hazards and suffered serious injuries as a result.

The outcome of this investigation deepened our concern about musculoskeletal hazards in poultry plants, where employees are at increased risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome and other disorders that affect the nerves, muscles and tendons. "These types of injuries are preventable by implementing appropriate engineering and administrative controls in the workplace, and when they occur, they must be treated early with appropriate medical care to prevent the illness from progressing. However, in this plant, OSHA found workers were often required to seek assistance from the company's on-site nurse many times before they were referred to a physician."

On I August, the US Departments of Agriculture and Labor sent a joint letter to all poultry plants regarding their responsibility to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

"Our investigation revealed that employees suffered musculoskeletal injuries, and Wayne Farms failed to record those injuries and properly manage the medical treatment of injured employees at the facility," said Joseph Roesler, OSHA's area director in Mobile.

"By failing to report injuries, failing to refer employees to physicians and discouraging employees from seeking medical treatment, Wayne Farms effectively concealed the extent to which these poultry plant workers were suffering work-related injuries and illnesses. And as a result, it reported an artificially lower injury and illness rate."

However, the poultry industry associations said that after reviewing five years of injury and illness records in this case, OSHA identified only a handful of record-keeping incidents, most of which involved the employer’s provision of exercise-strengthening programs for employees experiencing minor discomfort. Because the employer did not record these proactive measures to head off potential injury, OSHA misconstrued this as proof of under-reporting.

Historically, as OSHA is aware, these proactive measures have not been recorded as injuries. The poultry industry believes that it properly addresses OSHA’s record-keeping standard and that OSHA has inexplicably changed its interpretation of the rules by deciding to now classify proactive job conditioning and minor soreness as a recordable injury or illness.

The poultry industry said it relies on its workforce of dedicated employees to provide a wholesome and affordable food source for the nation and the rest of the world.

"This reliance has prompted the industry to heavily invest in processes and procedures to further reduce workplace hazards and ergonomic risks," the associations said.

"While the poultry industry respects the government’s oversight role in the joint effort to protect employees, the industry’s workplace advancements and future success are in danger of being hampered by unclear rules and arbitrary actions like those demonstrated by OSHA.

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