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Fifty Years After Safety Act, US Workers Still at Risk

Biden Administration Should Strengthen Regulations, Oversight

The most common ailments for workers in the industry are musculoskeletal disorders—cumulative trauma injuries like carpal tunnel or tendinitis that develop through repeated stress over time.  © 2019 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

Fifty years ago today, then-United States President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, a bill that set the stage for many of the basic protections to which US workers are legally entitled today.

In January 2020, the US Department of Labor announced it would commemorate this anniversary “with a yearlong celebration of past achievements, current efforts, and future initiatives to protect the American workforce.”

But amidst all this talk of celebration, the Department of Labor and other agencies under the administration of President Donald Trump have led aggressive efforts to weaken and scrap workplace safety protections and reduce oversight. These efforts have put workers’ health and lives at risk, and tainted the OSH Act’s legacy.

The US meatpacking industry illustrates some of the major risks to workers’ health that deregulation has been amplifying. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—a Labor Department agency created by the OSH Act to implement the law—meatpacking workers face three times the risk of serious injury, including amputations, head trauma, fractures, and second degree burns, compared to the average US worker. Human Rights Watch research shows that, in addition to dangerous equipment and ergonomic conditions, intense line speeds correlate with high rates of severe injury among these workers.

Despite this correlation, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) revoked the maximum limit on slaughter line speeds for hog processing plants in September 2019. That same year, the number of OSHA workplace safety inspectors fell to the lowest in history.

More recently, cramped conditions, long hours, and inadequate personal protective equipment led meatpacking plants to become hotspots for Covid-19 outbreaks. While workers put their lives on the line, FSIS granted waivers to some poultry plants to increase line speeds with little oversight. Such callousness toward workers’ safety, during a time when heightened protections are needed, extended to other industries as the Trump administration disregarded labor unions’ calls for federal standards to protect essential workers during the pandemic.

Dangerous conditions and deregulation preceded the pandemic. But the current crisis starkly shows the insufficiency of existing protections and regulatory oversight to ensure the right to a safe and healthy working environment. To better fulfill US obligations to workers and to truly honor the legacy of the OSH Act 50 years on, it is incumbent upon the incoming administration of Joe Biden to urgently restore and strengthen workplace safety regulations.

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