Workplace Safety and Health:
Additional Data Needed to Address Continued Hazards in the Meat and Poultry Industry
GAO-16-337: Published: Apr 25, 2016. Publicly Released: May 25, 2016.
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What GAO Found
Injury and illness rates in the meat and poultry slaughtering and processing industry declined from 2004 through 2013, similar to rates in all U.S. manufacturing, according to Department of Labor (DOL) data (see figure), yet hazardous conditions remain. The rates declined from an estimated 9.8 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2004 to 5.7 in 2013. However, these rates continued to be higher than rates for manufacturing overall. Meat workers sustained a higher estimated rate of injuries and illnesses than poultry workers, according to DOL data. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) evaluations and academic studies have found that workers continue to face the hazardous conditions GAO cited in 2005, including tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders, exposure to chemicals and pathogens, and traumatic injuries from machines and tools.
Injury and Illness Rates among Workers in the Meat and Poultry Industry, Compared with Rates in All U.S. Manufacturing, Calendar Years 2004 through 2013
Note: The meat and poultry industry refers to the animal slaughtering and processing industry, North American Industry Classification System code 31161, which includes animal (except poultry) slaughtering, meat processed from carcasses, rendering and meat byproduct processing, and poultry processing including slaughter.
DOL faces challenges gathering data on injury and illness rates for meat and poultry workers because of underreporting and inadequate data collection. For example, workers may underreport injuries and illnesses because they fear losing their jobs, and employers may underreport because of concerns about potential costs. Another data gathering challenge is that DOL only collects detailed data for those injuries and illnesses that result in a worker having to take days away from work. These detailed data do not include injuries and illnesses such as musculoskeletal disorders that result in a worker being placed on work restriction or transferred to another job. Further, DOL does not have complete injury and illness data on meat and poultry sanitation workers because they may not be classified in the meat and poultry industry if they work for contractors. Federal internal control standards require agencies to track data to help them make decisions and meet their goals. These limitations in DOL's data collection raise questions about whether the federal government is doing all it can to collect the data it needs to support worker protection and workplace safety.
Why GAO Did This Study
DOL is responsible for gathering data on workplace injuries and illnesses, including those in the meat and poultry industry, where workers may experience injuries and illnesses such as sprains, cuts, burns, amputations, repetitive motion injuries, and skin disorders. GAO was asked to examine developments since its 2005 report, which found this industry was one of the most hazardous in the United States and that DOL data on worker injuries and illnesses may not be accurate, and recommended that DOL improve its data collection.
This report (1) describes what is known about injuries, illnesses, and hazards in the meat and poultry industry since GAO last reported, and (2) examines DOL's challenges gathering injury and illness data in this industry. GAO analyzed DOL data from 2004 through 2015, including injury and illness data through 2013, the most recent data available, and examined academic and government studies and evaluations on injuries and illnesses. GAO interviewed DOL and other federal officials, worker advocates, industry officials, and workers, and visited six meat and poultry plants selected for a mix of species and states. The information gathered in these visits is not generalizable to all plants or workers.
What GAO Recommends
GAO is making three recommendations, including that DOL improve its data on musculoskeletal disorders and sanitation workers in the meat and poultry industry. DOL, USDA, and CDC concurred with GAO's recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: DOL generally agreed with this recommendation and stated that its implementation would make a difference in working conditions in the meat and poultry industry. The agency also noted that resource constraints may make it difficult to implement. DOL reported in 2018 that it is reviewing its options for moving forward and is exploring accurate coding and recordkeeping of MSDs and drivers for underreporting in poultry processing and elsewhere. As of March 2020, OSHA stated that it continues to examine ways to work with BLS to address the recommendation. We will monitor the agency's actions to address this recommendation.
Recommendation: To strengthen DOL's efforts to ensure employers protect the safety and health of workers at meat and poultry plants, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, working together with the Commissioner of Labor Statistics as appropriate, to develop and implement a cost-effective method for gathering more complete data on musculoskeletal disorders.
Agency Affected: Department of Labor
Comments: DOL generally agreed with this recommendation and stated that its implementation would make a difference in working conditions in the meat and poultry industry. The agency also noted that resource constraints may make it difficult to implement. In June 2017, OSHA reported that it is taking steps to address certain chemical hazards that can affect sanitation workers. The agency noted, for example, that it is developing fully validated sampling and analytical methods for common disinfectant chemicals used in meat and poultry processing operations including peracetic acid. In 2018, the agency conducted two inspections evaluating USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) Poultry Inspector exposures to peracetic acid and other chemicals used in processing operations. Teams from OSHA conducted direct reading instrument assessments, and conducted air sampling in employee breathing zones. In 2019, the agency reported that it is continuing to work on developing fully validated sampling and analytical methods for common disinfectant chemicals used in meat and poultry processing operations including peracetic acid. In 2019, OSHA reported progress on methods for peracetic acid. However, our recommendation focuses on OSHA's tracking of injuries and illnesses. We will consider closing this recommendation when OSHA provides documentation that it examined ways to regularly collect data that would help determine injury and illness rates among sanitation workers.
Recommendation: To develop a better understanding of meat and poultry sanitation workers' injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health and the Commissioner of Labor Statistics to study how they could regularly gather data on injury and illness rates among sanitation workers in the meat and poultry industry.
Agency Affected: Department of Labor
Comments: HHS concurred with this recommendation and noted the previous difficulties NIOSH has had gaining access to these workplaces and the potential resource commitment involved in conducting such a study. We acknowledge this access challenge and noted in our report that OSHA has negotiated access for NIOSH in other industries, hence the rationale for recommending that NIOSH may want to coordinate with OSHA. The agency reported that it would reach out to stakeholders, such as worker unions, USDA and OSHA, to discuss the range of types of study that could be conducted to provide useful information. GAO will await the progress of this effort and close the recommendation when the agency initiates a study.
Recommendation: To develop a better understanding of meat and poultry sanitation workers' injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conduct a study of the injuries and illnesses these workers experience, including their causes and how they are reported. Given the challenges to gaining access to this population, NIOSH may want to coordinate with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop ways to initiate this study.
Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services