Meat Industry is Making Great Strides on Worker Safety, Trade Association Says

The head of the American Meat Institute (AMI) says recent allegations that the meat and poultry industry has a poor safety record and has fought unionization bear "no resemblance to the reality of today's U.S. meat and poultry industry, or to our documented and successful efforts to enhance workplace safety."

AMI President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle, in an editorial in the Aug. 31 Washington Post ("In Meatpacking, Progress to be Proud of"), asserts that data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a 67-percent decline in total injuries and illnesses in the meat and poultry industry since 1990. He also claims that data indicates the industry is safer than "over a dozen other industries," including light-truck manufacturing, foundries and automobile manufacturing.

"Sadly, when it comes to reporting and commenting on the U.S. meat industry, we live with the legacy of a book that was a landmark novel when it was written 100 years ago: 'The Jungle,' by Upton Sinclair," Boyle wrote. "This moving, fictional account of an immigrant's plight in a number of industries is required reading for many journalism and sociology students, and it seems to color their views about the modern meat industry. It's a bit like relying on 'Oliver Twist' for a picture of modern child care."

Boyle also says that an estimated 60 percent of the red-meat-packing industry is represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, compared with an average unionization rate of 7.9 percent in the private sector.

Industry Has Come Under Fire

Boyle was responding to an Aug. 3 Washington Post editorial ("Meatpacking's Human Toll") written by Jamie Fellner, the U.S. program director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, and Lance Compa, who recently authored a scathing Human Rights Watch report on the meat and poultry industry's safety and labor record.

"Working conditions in U.S. meat and poultry plants should trouble the conscience of every American who eats beef, pork or chicken," Fellner and Compa wrote in the Washington Post.

They add that meat and poultry processing is inherently dangerous but "meatpacking and poultry workers face more than hard work in tough settings."

"U.S. meat and poultry employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible," Fellner and Compa wrote. "In doing so, they violate the right of workers to a safe place of employment."

The Aug. 3 editorial echoed Human Rights Watch's 175-page report ("Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,") published earlier this year that claims employers in the U.S. meat and poultry industry subject their workers to unnecessary hazards, suppress workers' rights to unionize, frustrate employees' attempts to obtain workers' compensation and exploit their immigrant workers.

"'Faster, faster, get that product out the door!' is the industry byword," Fellner and Compa wrote in the Washington Post. "The results are cuts, amputations, skin disease, permanent arm and shoulder damage, and even death from the force of repeated hard cutting motions. When injured employees seek workers' compensation claims for their juries, they are told, 'You got hurt at home, not on the job.'"

AMI's Boyle, in response, argues that "line speeds are based on a thorough assessment by systems engineers that ensures that tasks can be adequately and safely performed by a worker in a prescribed time."

"This is essential to maximizing the value of meat cuts, value that can easily be reduced if excessive line speeds cause shoddy workmanship," Boyle wrote. "The fact that injury and illness rates in the meatpacking industry have been declining steadily over the past 15 years clearly demonstrates that staffing levels are appropriate for given line speeds."

Boyle, who adds that line speeds and food safety regulations are monitored and enforced by nearly 8,000 federal inspectors, challenges "anyone to name another industry that has this kind of continuous oversight."

"Obviously, the notion that a plant can, at will, operate 'faster! faster!' is precluded by federal rules, contrary to industrial engineering job design, at odds with maximizing product values and inconsistent with producing safe food," Boyle wrote. "If Compa and Fellner can't accept the idea that we do the right thing just because it's right and we have a strong collective conscience, maybe they can believe that we do it because it's also financially beneficial and required by federal regulations. Either way, we are proud of our workplace safety improvements and committed to further progress."

Boyle's editorial can be viewed at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/30/AR2005083001552.html. Fellner and Compa's editorial can be viewed at http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/08/03/usdom11575.htm.

For more on the Human Rights Watch report on the meat and poultry industry, visit http://www.occupationalhazards.com/articles/12908.

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