Analysis: Government Data on Slaughterhouse Work Injuries Incomplete

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report on the hazards in the meat and poultry industry, indicating that injury and illness rates among workers had declined between 2004 and 2013 to rates similar to what we see in all U.S. manufacturing. meat

However, as an in-depth NPR analysis points out, this report, a follow-up to a 2005 workplace injury report on the industry, data from federal regulators almost certainly doesn’t capture all incidents and all hazards faced by workers in the meat and poultry industry. Frequently, injuries and illnesses go underreported, as workers are often in a vulnerable position and fear repercussions. Further, the new report does concede that injuries and illnesses are still common, and higher than for other workers in the manufacturing industry.

Between 2004 and 2013, there were 151 meat and poultry workers who died as a result of work-related injuries or illnesses. But many incidents – even workplace fatalities – may not be reported. 

Even the GAO found several examples in which workplace injuries and deaths were not being tallied. Those included:

  • Sanitation workers in meat plants were known to have suffered severed fingers and limb amputations while cleaning the equipment. Some of these individuals even died. However, their cases often weren’t counted with the other poultry and meat industry figures because often, these individuals worked for third-party contractors.
  • Many facilities have on-site medical staff and clinics. Workers are encouraged to go to these clinics first before seeing a physician. When the workers receive treatment at these clinics, they are often encouraged to go back to work rather than visit a doctor for treatment of their pain. Regulators noted one case in which a worker made nearly 100 visits to a nursing station before he was finally referred to a doctor.
  • Employees at a many poultry and meat slaughterhouses are in many cases refugees or immigrants. They firstly suffer language barriers that can prevent them from receiving proper training and from reporting injuries when they occur. Additionally, injuries are often downplayed or not reported at all because workers don’t want to risk losing their jobs.

Even the GAO itself noted that these limitations raise significant questions about whether federal regulators need to be doing more to collect the data necessary to bolster worker protection and safety of these sites.

Workplace safety advocates have long been skeptical of the injury rates reported by meat companies. For instance, one study focusing on a poultry processing plant in Maryland found that more than 1 in 3 workers had symptoms that meet the accepted definition of carpal tunnel syndrome, and yet only a handful of those had actually reported those injuries to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

When workers are discouraged (overtly or otherwise) from reporting their injuries, the symptoms may worsen or even result in permanent damage.

Those in the industry insist strides have been made in reducing worker injuries, with some facilities reporting injury rates of 3 percent or less. Some companies are working to try to limit worker exposure to dangerous machinery by automating some of the processes.

Still, cuts, strains, cumulative trauma injuries from falls, fractures and amputations continue to occur with alarming frequency. Just because it isn’t reported doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

We Don’t Know How Many Workers Are Injured at Slaughterhouses. Here’s Why. May 25, 2016, By Grant Gerlock, NPR

More Blog Entries:

Report: Poultry Industry Workers Denied Bathroom Breaks, Forced to Wear Diapers, May 8, 2016, Winston-Salem Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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