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Highlights

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

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.

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Recommendations

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

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Labor 1. 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.
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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.
Department of Labor 2. 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.
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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 noted that resource constraints may make it difficult to implement, particularly due to privacy concerns related to using form 301 (injury and illness incident report) and form 300 (log of work-related illnesses and injuries. DOL also noted that form 300A (Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses) does not have the specificity necessary to develop an understanding of worker injuries and illnesses in specific occupations. Our report explained that plants may use various job titles in their OSHA logs for sanitation workers they employ directly. However, those workers who are employed by contracted sanitation companies may be included in the sanitation companies' OSHA logs, and there may be nothing to indicate that their workplace is a meat or poultry plant. Thus, the problem is not the data source, but rather how to identify these particular workers by occupation and by industry in order to collect information about the full extent of injuries and illnesses in meat and poultry plants. We reiterate our recommendation that OSHA should work together with BLS to study how to regularly gather data on injury and illness rates among sanitation workers in the meat and poultry industry.
Department of Health and Human Services 3. 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.
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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. In February 2020, NIOSH reported it met with industry associations to discuss areas of mutual interest for research on worker safety in poultry plants. However, according to NIOSH, the advent of COVID-19 and its challenges have limited plans for field studies for FY20. During the COVID-19 epidemic NIOSH informed us that, as of March 2021, its representatives have: (1) created COVID-19 safety guidelines with OSHA and (2) performed more than 30 meat and poultry worksite evaluations focusing on the prevention of COVID-19. NIOSH notes that it continues to have an interest in learning more about and providing assistance to minimize various types of illnesses and injuries that may affect meat and poultry sanitation workers, and at some point in the future they hope to "re-initiate" their interactions with stakeholders such as the National Chicken Council and US Egg & Poultry Association on the study of peracetic acid exposure in the poultry processing industry. Our recommendation was aimed at increasing the understanding of the various types of illnesses and injuries that are common among meat and poultry sanitation workers, including their causes and how they are reported. We look forward to hearing about future studies that address this topic.

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