Workplace Safety and Health: Better Outreach, Collaboration, and Information Needed to Help Protect Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants

GAO-18-12 Published: Nov 09, 2017. Publicly Released: Dec 07, 2017.
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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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)
Open
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 reported 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. In 2022, DOL told us that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA relied heavily on the use of remote virtual interviews for inspections, including those conducted with meatpacking facilities. To provide more opportunities for employee interviews going forward, and to aid in employee comfort with interviews, OSHA intends to continue using this avenue for reaching employees and other witnesses where appropriate, even when the inspection is conducted primarily onsite. DOL confirmed that OSHA's policy and practice are to conduct private interviews with a representative portion of workers so that employers do not know the identity of workers who may have raised concerns to OSHA. Further, OSHA has held a number of listening sessions with meat/poultry processing employees and their advocates to hear about their issues and suggested solutions. According to DOL, OSHA found that working with advocacy groups allows them to reach more workers during an investigation and gives them a higher comfort level during interviews, and agency intends to continue working with the advocates in the future. We look forward to receiving additional information from OSHA on how they've used these techniques to provide meat and poultry workers with opportunities to share information in non-workplace settings.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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)
Open – Partially Addressed
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. As of June 2020, OSHA had signed a national alliance with several meat and poultry-related industry associations, and that bathroom access is one of the topics that will be addressed within this alliance, with a goal of developing educational materials. In March 2021, DOL reported that the poultry industry associations initiated a worker survey using a validated survey instrument developed and administered by the National Safety Council (NSC) to gather feedback about each participating organization's safety management system. In addition to the standard survey questions, OSHA and the associations worked with NSC to develop customized questions on areas associated with the Alliance, including restroom breaks. As of June 2022, OSHA continues to engage with worker centers in the meat and poultry industries on the hazards workers experience in these workplaces, including those related to restroom access. Through this engagement, OSHA planned to conduct a joint training exchange with six workers centers in July 2022 that was to include restroom access as a discussion topic. The planned outcome of the exchange is to formulate a report identifying actions that the agency, workers, and advocates can take to address the issue. We note that these are positive steps forward, and look forward to receiving information about their impact on OSHA's efforts to address bathroom access.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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)
Open – Partially Addressed
In 2022, DOL reported that OSHA staff have been deeply involved in the COVID response and concurrences for the draft guidance from all necessary OSHA units were not completed until early FY 2022. The document is currently in internal clearance with an expected finalization date by the end of calendar year 2022. We will consider closing this recommendation when this effort is complete.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority 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)
Closed – Implemented
On August 1, 2022, OSHA and FSIS signed an updated MOU that lays out areas of cooperation between the two agencies, including making referrals, exchange of data and materials, and coordination of OSHA and FSIS regulatory actions. In addition, the agreement calls for OSHA and FSIS to coordinate on state plan participation in training and information sharing. The MOU states that both agencies shall conduct annual reviews of the implementation of the MOU. The MOU took effect immediately after being signed by both agencies, and will continue in force for five years.
Food Safety and Inspection Service
Priority Rec.
This is a priority 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)
Closed – Implemented
On August 1, 2022, OSHA and FSIS signed an updated MOU that lays out areas of cooperation between the two agencies, including making referrals, exchange of data and materials, and coordination of OSHA and FSIS regulatory actions. In addition, the agreement calls for OSHA and FSIS to coordinate on state plan participation in training and information sharing. The MOU states that both agencies shall conduct annual reviews of the implementation of the MOU. The MOU took effect immediately after being signed by both agencies, and will continue in force for five years.
Food Safety and Inspection Service 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)
Open – Partially Addressed
FSIS stated that the agency already has a process for sharing chemical safety information with its inspectors. However, FSIS had not provided us with evidence that it had 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. In August 2022, FSIS told us that it had developed a process to share worker safety information with OSHA and NIOSH as part of new technology submissions. In addition, the updated worker safety MOU between FSIS and OSHA states that the agencies will share any new methods or techniques to monitor and assess new procedures and chemicals used in meat and poultry plants, and that the agencies will notify each other if they learn of any new chemicals, technologies, or procedures that may impact worker safety and health at these facilities. Also, the MOU states that FSIS and OSHA will coordinate on developing and assessing new technologies and procedures or organization of work changes that may impact worker safety and health at meat and poultry plants. We commend the agency on taking these steps to share worker safety information it collects during its review of new chemicals with FSIS OSHA, and NIOSH, but it is not clear how this process will share this information with FSIS inspectors and plant management, as detailed in the recommendation.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 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)
Closed – Implemented
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.

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