Increase in line speed at poultry plants could cause more injuries, contamination

July 26, 2013

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plans to introduce new rules at poultry plants that would see the speed of lines at processing facilities increase to 175 birds per minute, up from the current 140 birds per minute.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plans to introduce new rules at poultry plants that would see the speed of lines at processing facilities increase to 175 birds per minute, up from the current 140 birds per minute. The reform, known as Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, or HIMP, has been trialed at several plants in Alabama for the past 15 years and is expected to roll out nationwide in September, the Epoch Times reported.

The meat and poultry packing industry in the United States is one of the biggest but also among the most dangerous. A 2005 report released by the Government Accountability Office stated that poultry workers were nearly twice as likely to suffer a work-related injury as those in other industries. In 2010, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) said that poultry processing workers had a 5.9 percent injury rate, whereas the national average was 3.8 percent.

A typical worker at a poultry processing plant has to spend eight or more hours a day leaning over a conveyor belt, cutting and chopping chicken carcasses. Most of the injuries occur because of the speed of the conveyor belt, claimed Tom Fritzsche, lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Increasing the speed at which that conveyor belt moves could have negative impact on workers' safety, he said.

The SPLC issued a report depicting the working conditions in poultry plants in Alabama. The state produces approximately one billion broilers per year, which ranks it after the two biggest poultry processing states, Georgia and Arkansas. It revealed that employees spend hours standing literally shoulder to shoulder. Small teams of workers can gut and slice more than 100 birds per minute, the report noted.

RELATED: Major food safety violations discovered at Mississippi meat processing plants

This is hard work and it takes its toll on workers. In April, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a survey on employees at a South Carolina poultry processing facility, revealing that 42 percent of them suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of the repetitive motion at work. Cuts and gashes are a common occurrence and workers are exposed to a number of chemicals and antibiotics, the study found. Moreover, employees are frequently penalized for stopping or slowing the line, which causes them to develop fear and to refrain from reporting incidents, the SPLC pointed out.

By further accelerating the rate at which the line moves, authorities put workers at even more serious risks, but this is not the only cause for concern. When the line moves at a faster speed the risk of contamination is also higher, the Epoch Times said. Some of the surveyed employees at Alabama plants reported seeing chicken falling on the floor and then being picked up and put back on the line with the rest, in an attempt to keep the line moving.

The new rules are anticipated to lead to about $90 million in savings over a period of three years. Under proposed plans, the number of USDA inspectors in plants will also be reduced, with processing plant workers acting as inspectors to make up for the cuts.

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