Workplace Safety and Health:

Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry, While Improving, Could Be Further Strengthened

GAO-05-96: Published: Jan 12, 2005. Publicly Released: Jan 28, 2005.

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Because meatpacking is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, we were asked to provide the Congress with information on the characteristics of workers in the meat and poultry industry and the conditions in which they work, the types of injuries and illnesses these workers incur, how injury and illness rates have changed over the past decade, and factors that may have affected these rates. We were also asked to determine what is known about the effectiveness of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) efforts to improve safety and health in the meat and poultry industries.

The largest proportions of workers in the meat and poultry industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), are young, male, and/or Hispanic. Although the majority of workers are citizens, an estimated 26 percent of them are foreign-born noncitizens. They work in hazardous conditions involving loud noise, sharp tools, and dangerous machinery. Many workers must stand for long periods of time wielding knives and hooks to slaughter or process meat on a production line that moves very quickly. Workers responsible for cleaning the plant must use strong chemicals and hot pressurized water. While, according to BLS, injuries and illnesses have declined over the past decade, the meat and poultry industry still has one of the highest rates of injury and illness of any industry. The most common injuries are cuts, strains, cumulative trauma, and injuries sustained from falls, but more serious injuries, such as fractures and amputation, also occur. According to BLS, the injury and illness rate for the industry has declined from an estimated 29.5 injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers in 1992 to 14.7 in 2001. Injury and illness rates can be affected by many factors, such as the amount and quality of training, employee turnover rates, increased mechanization, and the speed of the production line. Some evidence suggests that OSHA's efforts have had a positive impact on the injury and illness rates of workers in meat and poultry plants. However, while the criteria OSHA uses to select plants for inspection--which focus on plants with relatively high injury and illness rates--are reasonable, OSHA could improve its selection process by also considering trends in plants' injury and illness rates over time. In addition, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of OSHA's efforts because the agency does not assign a unique identifier to each plant, making it hard to compare the data it collects on specific plants' injury and illness rates with the information the agency collects on the results of its plant inspections and other programs.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health and the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Acting Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service to revisit and update their memorandum of understanding to ensure that USDA inspectors receive training in recognizing and referring workplace hazards and that the agreement remains current.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although USDA and DOL have not updated their MOU, USDA issued Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Directive 4791.12, Reporting and Correcting Occupational Hazards, which instructs FSIS inspection program personnel about how and when to refer concerns about hazards appropriately within FSIS and to OSHA. It includes a section instructing FSIS personnel on how to report safety and health hazards verbally or in writing within FSIS, and how to file safety or health hazard complaints with OSHA. In addition, the FSIS Center for Learning has developed a training course, "Identifying and Reporting Workplace Safety and Health Hazards," an e-learning project that all FSIS employees can access electronically. In addition, the center has updated its training modules covering OSHA safety and health requirements.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health and the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Acting Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service to revisit and update their memorandum of understanding to ensure that USDA inspectors receive training in recognizing and referring workplace hazards and that the agreement remains current.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In FY 2006, OSHA stated that it planned to cooperate with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to encourage the revitalization of the USDA-inspector training. OSHA also stated that it was in the process of updating and reviewing existing memorandums of understanding (MOUs) based on their relevance and obsolescence but did not indicate when these actions would be completed. In November 2007, OSHA stated that it provided an initial training session to members of the Food Safety and Inspection Service(FSIS) joint team, focusing on making them aware of OSHA's purpose, educating them about what constitutes serious workplace safety and fire safety hazards, and making referrals to OSHA. OSHA was also to provide training materials for the initial session and additional master copies so they could conduct subsequent field training. In addition, according to OSHA, both agencies coordinated standards development programs to minimize possible inconsistencies, exchange information and reports on general enforcement matters on common issues of concern, etc. The OSHA training institute also developed a train-the-trainer course for FSIS.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the agency's efforts to improve safety and health of workers at meat and poultry plants, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to consider expanding successful partnerships, such as the Omaha Area Office's partnership with meatpacking plants in Nebraska to other area offices with high concentrations of meat and poultry plants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to OSHA officials, cooperative program participation is voluntary - typically resulting from private and public sector interest to partner with the agency. OSHA cannot require a specific group or industry to participate in cooperative programs; typically, organizations or companies approach OSHA to partner. Based on the link to the Strategic Management Plan, potential for impact on reducing fatalities, injuries or illnesses, and available resources, OSHA makes a decision whether to form a cooperative relationship with the interested party. In the past decade, OSHA has entered into cooperative relationships with the meat packing industry due to the employers' and employees' belief in the value of implementing effective safety and health management systems and promoting a safety and health culture. A total of 22 meatpacking industry sites have attained VPP status. In addition, OSHA has formed three partnerships in the meatpacking industry. The most recent partnership is the Nebraska Animal Slaughtering and Processing Industry (NASPI) partnership, which started in June 2006, and was noted in our report. OSHA has no plan to expand the partnership to other parts of the country.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the agency's efforts to improve safety and health of workers at meat and poultry plants, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to consider requiring that a common identifier for each plant be used in all of its enforcement and cooperative program databases so that these different data sets can be more easily compared in an effort to measure the agency's impact on worker safety and health.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSHA is implementing a new comprehensive information system (i.e., the OSHA Information System (OIS)) that houses its multiple data program systems. OSHA last reported that the OIS would include identification and matching features. The capability these features will provide are referred to as "robust trending." According to OSHA, all business lines (e.g., VPP, enforcement, consultation, alliances, partnerships, whistleblower/11c program) will enter information into OIS in the same way. Its "business object software" will allow "establishment processing," that is, investigators anywhere in the country will be able to see all OSHA activity for an establishment, regardless of business line. OSHA completed a limited pilot of the OIS in November of 2008. OIS deployment remains on schedule for 9/30/10 absent funding challenges or agency reprioritization. The OIS includes uniform establishment processing.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the agency's efforts to improve safety and health of workers at meat and poultry plants, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to consider requiring worksites that are surveyed by OSHA to obtain worksite-specific data on injuries and illnesses to include (1) multiple years of data, so that trends in their rates may be analyzed and (2) data on injuries and illnesses to workers employed by cleaning and sanitation companies that provide workers to the plant under contract so that these data can be included in the rates OSHA uses to select plants for inspection.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to officials at OSHA, the agency already has the ability to analyze trends in rates for specific establishments. Establishments that report high rates of injuries and illnesses (i.e., a Days Away, Restricted, or Transferred (DART) rate of 7.0 or greater) are included in the data collection in consecutive years. OSHA has stated that it can therefore trend rates for that establishment on an annual basis. Collection of multiple years of data during one collection would be redundant and contrary to the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). According to OSHA, establishments that do not report high DART rates are included in the OSHA Data Initiative (ODI) collection on a rotating basis, generally every second or third year. While this precludes OSHA from having a complete data set, it does not limit the agency's ability to trend data over time. If the establishment continues to operate, OSHA will have multiple years of data for that establishment. Given its current ability to trend and analyze multiple years of establishment level data, OSHA does not see the need to modify its data collection procedures as recommended by GAO. With regard to the collection of data on injuries and illnesses to workers that work at meat packing facilities but are employed by other companies, OSHA believes this recommendation would be contrary to the record developed in the 2001 revision of the injury and illness recordkeeping requirements (29 CFR Part 1904). While the concept may be feasible, OSHA made the decision not to adopt it based on the record developed through the rulemaking process. The January 19, 2001 Federal Register (pp. 5921-5923) discusses the "site log" concept and outline the agency's reasons for not adopting that proposed provision. OSHA stands by the rulemaking. Its 2003-2008 Strategic Management Plan directs OSHA to allocate its resources to specific industries with high injury, illness, and fatality rates or special population needs. According to OSHA, the meat packing industry is not identified in the agency's current Plan and, therefore, is not targeted for enforcement, outreach, or cooperative program emphasis. The agency continues to maintain the ability to analyze trends at specific establishments and also asserts that collection of injury and illness data of contract employees not under the day-to-day supervision of meat and poultry plant employers is contrary to the record developed in its last recordkeeping rulemaking. Requiring data from contractors would necessitate rulemaking which is not prioritized on OSHA's regulatory agenda at this time. It should be noted, however, that the new Administration is reviewing and re-examining OSHA's regulatory agenda, and the possibility of reconsidering site logs has not been entirely eliminated.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the agency's efforts to improve safety and health of workers at meat and poultry plants, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to consider adjusting OSHA's criteria for selecting worksites for site specific targeting inspections and for record-keeping audits to consider worksites that have had large reductions in their injury and illness rates over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its official response to our recommendation, OSHA stated that it has added 400 employers with low rates in high-hazard industries to its fiscal year (FY) 2006 Site-Specific Targeting (SST) program. OSHA also stated that it will look to expand the SST in future years based on the results of the FY 2006 program. In addition, OSHA has solicited public comments on its SST program and is currently reviewing comments from industry associations, employers, and safety and health professionals. As it completes this review, it will consider GAO's suggestion to expand the criteria for SST inspections in this industry.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health conduct a study of the effect of the speed of the production line on workers in the meat and poultry industry, a study that would also include other job-specific features that interact with line speed to increase the risk of injuries and illnesses to these workers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of August 2007, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that it is exploring opportunities with the American Meat Institute to develop a collaborative research effort focused on reducing injuries in the meat industry, which could include a review of the speed of the production line. It is NIOSH's position, however, that the issue of line speed is not an independent factor directly contributing to injuries but is confounded by a multitude of other factors and cannot be examined in isolation in research focusing on prevention of injury outcomes. NIOSH noted that successful injury prevention research in the meat industry would require cooperative worksite access and industry participation, which is difficult to obtain.

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