February 3, 2005

Human Rights Watch welcomes a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)—formerly the Government Accounting Office—on worker safety in the meat and poultry industry. The GAO report backs up Human Rights Watch’s findings that this is the most dangerous factory job in America, and it emphasizes the need for more vigorous enforcement action by government safety agencies.

The two reports are highly complementary. The GAO report focuses solely on worker safety while Human Rights Watch examines safety, workers’ compensation for injuries, workers’ organizing rights, and the vulnerable status of immigrant workers in the industry. GAO researchers were able to get industry-specific data on injury rates and on worker demographics, including immigrant workers, that were not available to Human Rights Watch during its research.

The GAO report cites a decline in the industry’s injury and illness rates as reported to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). But the GAO acknowledges doubts about the validity of the data on which the injury rates are based and notes the possibility of underreporting.

According to Human Rights Watch’s research, there is in fact considerable underreporting of injuries in the meatpacking industry. Workers told Human Rights Watch of constant pressure and intimidation not to report injuries or illnesses and to work through the pain. They fear retaliation by their employer if they report an injury or lose time from work because of injury or illness. The decline in official injury rates may be due as much to underreporting and non-reporting as to any improved conditions.

The GAO also noted that OSHA data “do not include injuries and illnesses incurred by cleaning and sanitation workers not employed directly by the plants” because “these workers are not classified as working in the meat and poultry industry.” Blood, Sweat, and Fear documents excessive hazards and serious injuries suffered by cleaning and sanitation crews.

The GAO report confirms that no federal agency monitors meatpacking and poultry line speeds to protect workers from injury. According to the GAO, OSHA officials said that “while they believed that slowing the speed of the production line could help reduce the number of injuries to workers, they do not have the data on the effect of line speed on worker safety.” The GAO recommends joint action by OSHA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to deal with line speed. Perhaps the first hurdle to be overcome, however, is the one specified in HHS’s response to the GAO, namely that it “has had difficulty gaining access to meatpacking plants for purposes of conducting research.” Moreover, only a quarter of the meatpacking and poultry companies surveyed by the GAO even responded to its questionnaire.

Human Rights Watch and other independent researchers have had the same problem getting access to information. Companies appear to go out of their way to avoid scrutiny of conditions inside the plants or to reveal any more about conditions and injuries than is absolutely required by law. Some companies are willing to reveal some of their policies, and even to post a workers’ “bill of rights,” as Tyson Foods announced on January 24, 2005. However, the companies have resisted scrutiny by researchers into their actual practices and workers’ real lives on the killing floors.

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