Workplace Safety and Health:

Better Outreach, Collaboration, and Information Needed to Help Protect Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants

GAO-18-12: Published: Nov 9, 2017. Publicly Released: Dec 7, 2017.

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  • GAO: Workplace Safety at Meat and Poultry PlantsVIDEO: Workplace Safety at Meat and Poultry Plants
    An animated look at some health and safety concerns of meat and poultry workers—and what a federal agency can do to help.

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brownbarnesc@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) increased its annual inspections of the meat and poultry industry from 177 in 2005 to 244 in 2016. OSHA officials told GAO that this increase was related to several new enforcement programs focusing on the poultry industry, as well as new reporting requirements that prompt additional inspections. However, OSHA faces challenges identifying and addressing worker safety concerns because workers may be reluctant to contact OSHA for fear of employer retaliation, although employers are prohibited from doing so by federal law. If workers are afraid to share concerns, OSHA may not be able to identify or address conditions that endanger them. In particular, OSHA may not be aware of the scope of problems workers could face gaining timely access to bathrooms. When asked by GAO, workers in five selected states cited bathroom access as a concern and said they fear speaking up at work, where OSHA inspectors typically interview them. Taking additional steps to encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns and gathering additional information to determine the scope of bathroom access issues could enable OSHA to better identify worker safety and health concerns.

OSHA's and the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) main vehicle for collaboration on worker safety is their 1994 memorandum of understanding (MOU), but efforts to implement and evaluate the MOU have been limited. The MOU outlines plans for collaboration, such as referrals of plant hazards to OSHA by FSIS inspectors, training of FSIS staff, and information sharing. OSHA and FSIS have taken some steps to implement the policies and procedures outlined in the MOU. However, GAO found issues with the MOU's implementation in these three areas, hampering achievement of the MOU's goals. For example, according to FSIS officials, FSIS inspectors may be reluctant to make referrals to OSHA about hazards in plants because they fear it could trigger an OSHA inspection of FSIS. Further, the agencies have not evaluated the implementation of the MOU. Evaluating the implementation of the MOU and making any needed changes would help ensure the goals of the MOU are met and further protect the safety and health of both plant workers and FSIS inspectors.

Gaps in federal efforts create challenges to protecting workers from certain chemical hazards. For example, depending on a chemical's intended use, it may not undergo a federal review of the risks it poses to worker safety and health before it is used in a plant. FSIS collects information on how to protect its inspectors from new chemicals, but it does not have a process to share this information with OSHA or plants, among others, so that plant workers can be similarly protected. By FSIS establishing a process to regularly share the worker safety information it collects, the federal government will be better positioned to use existing resources to support the safety and health of plant workers and FSIS inspectors.

Why GAO Did This Study

Meat and poultry slaughter and processing is one of the most hazardous industries in the United States. GAO was asked to review federal efforts to help ensure meat and poultry worker safety and health.

This report (1) describes the efforts OSHA has made to help ensure worker safety and assesses any challenges to these efforts, (2) examines how OSHA and FSIS have collaborated to ensure worker safety, and (3) assesses factors that may affect OSHA and FSIS efforts to protect workers from chemical hazards. GAO analyzed OSHA inspection data from 2005—when GAO last reported on this issue—through 2016. GAO also interviewed OSHA staff in headquarters and six field offices; officials at four other federal agencies; worker advocates; and industry representatives. GAO visited four plants and interviewed workers at six sites in five states selected based on factors such as meat or poultry production.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that OSHA encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns and gather bathroom access information; OSHA and FSIS strengthen their MOU; and FSIS share worker safety information. OSHA had concerns about two of these recommendations and did not address one. FSIS expressed concerns but described planned actions to address the recommendations. GAO believes the recommendations should be fully implemented.

For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: OSHA did not state whether it concurred with this recommendation. The agency noted that it fully supports the idea of continuous improvement of its processes that would expand its ability to identify and address hazards before an injury, illness, or fatality occurs. However, OSHA noted that it would be challenging to conduct offsite interviews in terms of witness cooperation, resources, and inspector safety. We continue to believe that OSHA should take steps to enhance reporting by meat and poultry workers. Our report describes meat and poultry workers' reluctance to report injuries, illnesses, and hazards to OSHA because of their fear of employer retaliation. OSHA's Field Operations Manual highlights the importance of a free and open exchange of information between OSHA inspectors and employees for conducting effective inspections. Conducting additional offsite interviews is one way to encourage employee reporting. However, there may be alternative additional steps OSHA could take to better position it to encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns, consistent with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health should take additional steps to encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns during OSHA inspections of meat and poultry plants; for example, by considering additional off-site interviews or exploring other options to obtain information anonymously. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: OSHA neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. The agency stated it could not commit to routinely asking about bathroom access at each meat and poultry inspection. OSHA stated that each inspection requires a flexible approach to address unique worksite hazards. Also, they do not routinely ask questions about any potential hazards that go beyond the scope of a complaint inspection, unless those hazards are in plain sight. However, our report notes that OSHA does require inspectors at poultry plants to consistently investigate other specific hazards, such as ergonomics hazards. We highlight the challenges meat and poultry workers may face gaining timely access to bathrooms. However, workers might not volunteer access information to OSHA. We identified a mismatch between the concerns we heard from workers and the problems reported by OSHA. Better understanding the scope of bathroom access problems would better position OSHA to respond appropriately. Further, OSHA may choose to address this issue without routinely asking workers about bathroom access, such as by selectively querying workers based on criteria determined by the agency.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health should gather more information, such as by asking workers during meat and poultry plant inspections, to determine the extent to which bathroom access is a problem and how to address any identified issues. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: OSHA stated that it intends to revisit its guidance. We will close this recommendation when the agency updates its guidance.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health should update its guidance for employers on how to manage their health units to address the challenges of managing these units. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

  4. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: OSHA stated that meat and poultry plants provide an opportunity for the two agencies to work collaboratively to identify employee hazards and promote safety and health, but the agency did not comment specifically on this recommendation. To fully implement this recommendation, the agencies should finish updating the MOU and establish a mechanism and timeframes to evaluate it regularly.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health should work with FSIS to assess the implementation of the MOU and make any needed changes to ensure improved collaboration; and set specific timeframes for periodic evaluations of the MOU. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

  5. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: FSIS stated that it already has directives in place to recognize and report hazards affecting FSIS employees, and acknowledged that the MOU was designed to additionally have FSIS employees report hazards affecting plant employees due to the regular presence of its inspectors in plants. FSIS noted that in collaborating with OSHA, FSIS will need to ensure its primary mission is not compromised by undertaking activities that take time and resources away from its food safety inspection responsibilities. We continue to believe that strengthening the MOU and developing a mechanism to regularly evaluate it would help ensure that the goals of the MOU are met, and that leveraging FSIS's presence in plants provides the federal government with a cost-effective opportunity to protect worker safety and health.

    Recommendation: The FSIS Administrator should work with OSHA to assess the implementation of the MOU and make any needed changes to ensure improved collaboration; and set specific timeframes for periodic evaluations of the MOU. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Food Safety and Inspection Service

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: FSIS stated that the agency already has a process for sharing chemical safety information with its inspectors. However, FSIS has not provided us with evidence that it has shared the worker safety information it collects related to new chemicals, such as safety information that is specific for dilution levels and conditions of use at plants, as noted in the report. FSIS also stated that it would take certain steps to share information about approval of chemicals with other agencies such as OSHA and NIOSH, but the steps identified did not include sharing worker safety information. Incorporating worker safety information would further help enhance this information sharing. FSIS further stated that some of the information collected during its review of new chemicals may be proprietary.

    Recommendation: The FSIS Administrator should develop a process to regularly share the worker safety information it collects during its review of new chemicals with FSIS inspectors, plant management, OSHA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Food Safety and Inspection Service

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Director of NIOSH should consider including in the agency's research agenda a proposal for examining the extent of peracetic acid's use in combination with other chemicals in meat and poultry plants, and any safety and health hazards these combinations may pose to workers. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

 

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