Worker safety and job conditions in the meat and poultry processing industry are the target of a Midwestern workers rights group that includes the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest in Lincoln.
The Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, based in Minneapolis and Chicago, said Friday it asked an international commission to hold hearings on the issue. The coalition, which includes 56 groups in the region, filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is a part of the Organization of American States.
A meat industry official said that the coalition was using outdated information to mislead the public and that worker safety in the slaughter industry has improved sharply.
The Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C., holds hearings and makes findings on issues in North and South American but does not have regulatory authority. The Midwestern coalition asked the commission to recommend that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopt “effective work speed and ergonomic regulations” for the meat-processing industry.
Omaid Zabih, an attorney for Nebraska Appleseed, said a hearing would bring attention to problems, including injuries resulting from rapid production lines, supervisor abuse, denial of bathroom breaks and general working conditions such as high temperatures. The commission is to hold hearings on such petitions Oct. 29-Nov. 16.
The petition cites issues reported in news stories and raised by workers surveyed by Nebraska Appleseed in 2009 and interviewed by the coalition’s staff.
Zabih said a hearing would make more people aware of the dangers facing meatpacking workers, especially excessive line speed that leads to repetitive motion injuries. Line speed also endangers food safety because poultry inspectors have little time to spot diseased birds, the coalition said.
In response, the American Meat Institute in Washington said the coalition was putting “a new date on a 20-year-old press release.”
J. Patrick Boyle, institute president, said the injury and illness rate among meat and poultry industry workers has declined sharply since 1991. In 2010 the rate was 6.9 cases per 100 workers per year, down from 14.7 10 years earlier.
“Our rate is only slightly higher than all manufacturing and far lower than dozens of other industries,” Boyle said in a press release. “A close look at the data over time makes clear that the meat and poultry industry’s worker safety record is consistently improving.”
Compared with animal slaughtering and processing, he said, occupational death rates are 75 times higher for commercial fishing, 45 times higher for logging and 35 times higher for aircraft pilots and flight engineers, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.
Boyle said production line speeds are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with federal inspectors “present continuously in plants that slaughter animals. If inspectors believe that lines are moving too quickly, they may slow them.” The key factor is not the speed of the line but the crews working there, he said.
He also noted that 60 percent of meatpacking workers belong to unions, compared with 6.9 percent of all private-sector workers.
The coalition argues that industry’s practices violate the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which was adopted in 1948 at the conference that formed the 35-nation Organization of American States, a regional group within the United Nations. The commission’s role is to uphold the declaration.
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