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Safety efforts in meat, poultry industry face hurdles

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s efforts to improve workplace safety in the meat and poultry industry face challenges because employees may be reluctant to report concerns for fear of retaliation, according to a government study.

OSHA increased its annual inspections of the meat and poultry industry from 177 in 2005 to 244 in 2016 – an increase related to several enforcement programs focusing on the poultry industry between 2008 and 2012 and new reporting requirements that prompted additional inspections from 2013 to 2016, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s report published Thursday.

OSHA several years ago voiced concerns about serious safety and health hazards in the meat and poultry industry, which had the 8th highest number of severe injury reports of all industries in 2015. These hazards include exposure to high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, musculoskeletal disorders and hazardous chemicals.

The agency has been particularly concerned about workplace safety risks in the industry because Hispanic or Latino workers constitute a major segment of the employee population, according to OSHA officials. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows sharp increases in job-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities for Hispanic or Latino workers, according to the bureau’s annual reports on fatal and non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses. OSHA has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service to ensure employers notify workers about safety issues in both English and Spanish.

However, OSHA faces challenges identifying and addressing safety concerns because workers may be reluctant to contact OSHA to report alleged safety violations for fear of employer retaliation, even though retaliation is prohibited by federal law, according to the GAO.

“If workers are afraid to share concerns, OSHA may not be able to identify or address conditions that endanger them,” the report said.

OSHA and FSIS’s main vehicle for collaboration on worker safety is a 1994 memorandum of understanding, signed after a workplace fire in 1991 that killed 25 poultry workers in North Carolina, that outlines collaboration plans such as referrals of plant hazards to OSHA by FSIS inspectors, according to the GAO. But efforts to implement the MOU have been limited, partly because FSIS inspectors may be reluctant to make referrals to OSHA about plant hazards because they fear it could trigger an OSHA inspection of FSIS, according to the report.

“Although OSHA does not fine federal agencies, it does monitor these agencies and conducts federal workplace inspections in response to workers’ reports of hazards,” the report stated.

In addition, the agencies have not evaluated the implementation of the MOU.

“Evaluating the implementation of the MOU and making any needed changes would help ensure the goals of the MOU are met and further protect the safety and health of both plant workers and FSIS inspectors,” the GAO said.

For example, FSIS collects information on how to protect its inspectors from new chemicals, but it does not have a process to share this information with OSHA or plants so that plant workers can be similarly protected. Such a process would better position the federal government to use existing resources to support workplace safety, according to the GAO.