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National COSH and Safety Experts on USDA Proposal: Faster Line Speeds in U.S. Pork Plants Will Increase Risk of Worker Injuries and Food Contamination

National COSH and Safety Experts on USDA Proposal:

Faster Line Speeds in U.S. Pork Plants Will Increase
Risk of Worker Injuries and Food Contamination

A proposed rule released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to lift caps on line speeds and reduce federal oversight in pork processing plants will add to the existing high risk of worker injuries and food contamination, worker safety experts said today.

“Workers who bring food to our tables deserve safety and dignity on the job, and consumers deserve and demand safe food,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “Raising line speeds in pork processing plants will only make a bad situation worse.”

Meatpacking workers currently experience a higher rate of occupational illnesses than workers in any other industry, seventeen times higher than workers nationwide. The USDA proposal, part of an industry-backed plan to privatize safety inspections at U.S. pork processing plants, will lift the cap on line speeds. Currently, pork producers slaughter an average of 1,100 hogs per hour. 

The result, safety experts say, will be more amputations and other disabling injuries for animal slaughtering workers.

About 150,000 workers in the U.S. slaughter large hog carcasses into ham, bacon, loins and other pork products sold in groceries, restaurants, and schools. Major U.S. pork processing firms include Smithfield, Hormel, JBS Swift, and Clemens Foods.

“On each and every shift, meatpacking workers use their hands and upper extremities to make tens of thousands of forceful, repetitive motions,” said Celeste Monforton, public health lecturer at Texas State University  “Unrelenting line speeds already lead to high rates of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and other musculoskeletal injuries. Higher line speeds will translate into even more illness and injury.”

The USDA proposal also poses increased hazards to consumers. It would allow processing firms to use their own staff, in place of federal inspectors, to look for fecal matter and other contaminants on the pork processing lines. A report from the USDA’s Office of Inspector General shows significant problems with food safety issues at pork Processing plants that have piloted the "self-inspection".

“The USDA should put this unwise proposal back on the shelf, and come back with a plan that providers rigorous, science-based protections for everyone who produces our food – and everyone who eats it,” said Martinez.

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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org.  Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.