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 stated that it agrees that workers should be able to report injuries, illnesses, and hazards free of intimidation. OSHA noted that its Field Operations Manual prescribes procedures for facilitating the free and open exchange of information, such as conducting onsite worker interviews without management present. OSHA further stated that when workers indicate interest in offsite interviews, the agency will conduct those interviews as prescribed by the Field Operations Manual. We note in our report that because inspectors inform plant management which workers they want to speak with, supervisors know the identity of workers interviewed onsite. Workers and worker advocates we spoke with expressed concerns about this. OSHA told us that inspectors interview meat and poultry workers offsite infrequently, since these interviews can be challenging and take additional time, and OSHA also may be challenged to find an acceptable venue when the employee is available. We continue to believe that there are additional steps OSHA can take to better encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns.

    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 stated that meat and poultry workers should have bathroom access as prescribed by the agency's regulations. They noted that if it is observed that processes indicate lack of bathroom access, or if a worker indicates there is an issue, the agency will investigate. Our report identified a mismatch between the concerns we heard from workers about lack of bathroom access and the problems reported by OSHA. We also reported that workers may not volunteer information about lack of bathroom access unless specifically asked. 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. We stand by our recommendation on this issue.

    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: In June 2019, OSHA informed us that it is working on updating its guidance for employers on how to manage their health units to address the challenges of managing these units. We will consider closing this recommendation when this effort is complete.

    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: In June 2019, OSHA informed us that OSHA and FSIS agreed to update the MOU as soon as possible. We will consider closing this recommendation when this effort is complete.

    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. In January 2019, OSHA reported that it met with FSIS several times to discuss chemical exposures, referrals, and issues of jurisdiction in state plan states. FSIS subsequently shared the results from a NIOSH health hazard evaluation that was conducted, as well as the efforts to track the source of the infected birds. To fully implement this recommendation, FSIS should strengthen the MOU and develop a mechanism to regularly evaluate it would help ensure that the goals of the MOU are met; 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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2018, CDC informed us that NIOSH had developed a cross-divisional research project proposal to develop recommended exposure levels for workers exposed to peracetic acid (and potentially other chemicals in combination including hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid) in several industries, including healthcare settings and meat and poultry plants. The purpose of the study is to characterize workplace exposures and engineering controls to peracetic acid and associated chemicals in the workplace, and to assist in developing guidance to ensure safe working conditions for workers using peracetic acid-based disinfectants. The specific objectives of this project are to: evaluate current sampling and analytical methods for peracetic acid, characterize worker exposures, evaluate and document work practices, processes, procedures, and chemicals used which affect exposure potential, document and evaluate engineering controls, conduct in vivo and in vitro studies to characterize acute and sub-chronic effects of peracetic acid.

    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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