On December 18, 2012, the Charlotte Observer reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had put forth a proposal to increase line speeds at poultry plants. Under the terms of the new proposal, line workers would jump from inspecting 140 birds to inspecting 175 birds per minute. In other words, line workers would be expected to work much faster to get more done in the same amount of time.
Our Greensboro workers' compensation attorneys are concerned that the increase in line speeds could put workers at greater risk of workplace injury. Workers on assembly lines at poultry factories are already at risk of nerve and muscle damage due to the nature of their work. Expecting more of these workers and requiring them to do even more repetitive motions even faster could significantly increase the damage to their bodies and cause them to suffer more repetitive stress work injuries.
The Dangers of Increased Speed in Line Work in Poultry Plants
Advocates in favor of the USDA proposal to speed up the line work done by poultry workers argue that there is no evidence that workers will be at greater danger of injury when asked to work faster. According to the Charlotte Observer, for example, USDA indicates that no data exists to substantiate the idea that workers will be at greater risk and, further, that USDA has no authority to regulate worker safety in the poultry industry.
The Observer also quotes advocates who indicate that the Bureau of Labor Statistics data has shown a decline in injuries in the poultry industry of as much as 74 percent since 1994. However, those who advocate for the rights of workers indicate that these and other figures may be misleading because poultry companies are responsible for self-reporting injuries. This means many injuries may not be reported or recorded and so the full extent of the dangers to workers remains unknown.
There are also other factors that contribute to the underreporting of workplace injuries. For instance, workers in poultry plants tend to be low wage workers who are sometimes undocumented immigrants or non-English speakers. These workers may not be aware of their workplace rights or may be afraid to assert those rights. Because of these combined factors, it should come as no surprise that a Wake Forest Study indicated that the BLS data might be underestimating the risk of injuries in poultry plants by as much as 70 percent.
Further, although the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association alleges that pilot plants operating at faster speeds are no less safe than other plants, others disagree and argue that the increased speed requirements put already at-risk workers in greater danger.
Even with the artificially low estimates, 2006 BLS data indicates that 20.8 out of every 10,000 poultry-plant workers had to miss work due to repetitive stress disorders. With increased line speeds, this number is only going to grow much larger as workers put more strain on their bodies and do the same repetitive motions even more often.
When a worker suffers a repetitive stress injury at work, workers' compensation is supposed to cover the injury, which would mean that the increased line speeds could come at significant cost. Unfortunately, the question remains as to whether workers who are asked to speed up their work and who do suffer harm as a result will actually be able to assert their rights.