Eat, Shop, Give. #GivingTuesday challenge gives Breast Cancer Fund supporters chance to double their impact
In May 2010, an explosion at the Black Mag gunpowder-substitute plant in Colebrook, New Hampshire killed employees Jesse Kennett and Don Kendall. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated and issued 54 citations with penalties totaling $1.2 million. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Health and Safety, said at the time, “Even after a prior incident in which a worker was seriously injured, and multiple warnings from its business partners and a former employee, this employer still decided against implementing safety measures.” Safety measures the company failed to implement included remote starting procedures, isolating operating stations, and erecting barriers or shielding. The agency issued four “egregious” citations for the employer’s failure to train each of the four workers involved in manufacturing the company’s gunpowder substitute.
The Coös County Attorney’s Office prosecuted company president Craign Sanborn, and a jury found him guilty of manslaughter. Sanborn has been sentenced to serve a total of 10-20 years in prison and pay $10,000 in fines. In a statement, Michaels said:
The disregard for safety cost two workers their lives, and this jury agreed that Craig Sanborn’s actions were criminal.
Sanborn recklessly ignored basic safety measures that would have protected their lives. His criminal conviction and sentence won’t bring these men back to life, but it will keep him from putting workers’ lives in peril. And it should drive home to employers this message: Worker safety can never be sacrificed for the benefit of production, and workers’ lives are not — and must never be — considered part of the cost of doing business. We categorically reject the false choice between profits and safety.
Employers who disregard workplace safety may figure they have little to fear from OSHA, whose enforcement staff and penalty amounts haven’t kept pace with workplace growth or inflation. But the possibility of a prison term if their safety problems kill workers may motivate lawbreaking employers to start following the rules.
In other news:
The Nation: The Obama administration withdrew a proposed regulation that would have barred young farmworkers from certain hazardous tasks. Reporter Mariya Strauss culled through data sources and found that at least 13 farworkers under age 16 have been killed on the job since the proposal was withdrawn, and at least four of them died doing tasks they would not have been allowed to perform if the rules had been finalized.
Washington Post’s Wonkblog: Five years after worker Jdimytai Damour was crushed to death in a Black Friday frenzy at a Long Island Walmart, many retailers have taken steps to prevent problem crowding at big sales events, from strategically placed barricades to crowd-control staffing. (Also see the Huffington Post’s report about how Walmart has not yet paid the $7,000 fine for inadequate crowd control related to Damour’s death.)
Boston Globe: Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that would require those employing nannies, housekeepers, caregivers, and other in-home workers to sign contracts agreeing on precise duties and pay. It would also allow domestic workers to file complaints about harassment or abuse with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. At a hearing about the bill, several domestic workers testified about poor treatment by employers.
Al Jazeera America: Prison inmates from the Airway Heights Correction Center near Spokane are fighting forest fires in some Western states, a hazardous job for which they’re paid less than a dollar an hour.
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: CDC’s Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance (ABLES) program identified 11,536 adults with very high blood lead levels during 2002-2011, and the majority of these adults had occupational lead exposures. (Also see Kim Krisberg’s post about how federal funding for ABLES program has fallen victim to sequestration.)
International Labour Organization: Lebanon has released a National Action Plan to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labour by 2016.
by Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA
President Obama’s health reform has been derailed in a collision with health insurance software, but this is hardly a unique experience. In 1995, I was invited to Prague to try to help the Czech Republic reconcile two co-existing public health practice cultures–the hygiene police of the Soviet era and the German tradition of social medicine.
Our delegation found another crisis in the works, around the creation of private health insurance that had started in 1990. Payroll deductions bought private health insurance that covered basic physician and hospital service. But that was just the start.
In Public Health Reports, I asked
“As the United States moves toward managed care and carefully structured incentives to make medical practice efficient, why did the Czech Republic choose private insurance companies and fee-for-service? Part of the answer is that the new system seemed furthest from the old command and control, and closest to pure market economics.” But the Czech Republic did not stop there. “Twenty-two private insurance companies, founded with minimal reserves established with large bank loans, make fee-for-service payments all physicians who care for their policy holders.”
No one seemed “to take responsibility for the decision to replace a Canadian-style fee-for-service system using a single insurance carrier that was in the original  plan with 22 independent carriers.” Why 22 insurance companies, I asked. As we probed, our Czech colleagues finally told us that it appeared that Hewlett-Packard (the US computer firm) had made payments to someone to assure that their software would be used. The H-P insurance software had slots for 24 carriers.
So, with a chance to adopt an efficient single-payer national health insurance system, the profit motives of a software company derailed the Czech plan. Imagine how much the US is wasting two decades later on a complex system that avoids national health insurance and allows software firms and insurance companies to rip-off billions of dollars.
Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA is co-Editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy. He directed the Vermont Department of Health, the Colorado Department of Health, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. National Vaccine Program.
Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff has helpfully compiled “A guide to surviving Obamacare debates at Thanksgiving,” and it starts off with a good one: “Your mom wants to know whether Obamacare is a total disaster.” Kliff’s response focuses on the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov, the online marketplace that was supposed to allow for easy health-insurance enrollment for people who need to get coverage. With the website improving but by no means problem-free, the enrollment numbers so far are dismally low. Kliff points out that some states that built their own online marketplaces have successfully enrolled thousands of people.
I’d add to this that Obamacare is far more than the online marketplace. The Affordable Care Act has already made important changes to health insurance, like allowing children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ plans, eliminating lifetime limits on the dollar value of coverage, and requiring insurers to spend 80-85% of their premium dollars on clinical services or refund the difference to plan members. It has advanced delivery and payment reforms that could put us on a path to paying for the quality of healthcare services, rather than just quantity. The expansion of Medicaid coverage in participating states will offer coverage to millions of people who’ve been unable to afford needed healthcare.
It’s perfectly appropriate to criticize the terrible Healthcare.gov launch. We shouldn’t let that overshadow everything the Affordable Care Act has accomplished, though.
As Americans prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday and the White House gets ready for President Obama to pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey in a Rose Garden ceremony on Wednesday November 27 that will “reflect upon the time-honored traditions of Thanksgiving,” let us take a moment to reflect upon the welfare of the men and women who process the millions of turkeys on their way to Thanksgiving dinners.
First, according to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 220,000 people currently work in the poultry processing industry in the US, at an annual median wage of about $25,000 a year, with half earning between $8.76 and $11.70 an hour. In the top ten turkey-producing states, most of those employed in meat slaughtering and producing earn between $22,660 and $23,870 annually. Most poultry processing plant workers are from ethnic minorities; many are also recent immigrants and women. Only about 30 percent of these workers are represented by unions. The workers who handle birds after they’re slaughtered typically handle about 30 or more turkeys a minute during shifts that run eight to nine hours. The birds can weigh more than 16 pounds each. (Imagine moving a cold 16-pound slippery dead turkey every two seconds between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.) The work also involves heavy machinery, sharp cutting equipment and disinfection chemicals. So this work is not only low-paying, but hard and often hazardous.
The meat industry says injury rates in poultry processing are at an all-time low and below that for the entire food manufacturing sector. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), however, “Since 1975, workers in this industry have consistently suffered injuries and illnesses at a rate more than twice the national average.” Repetitive motion injuries, muscoskeletal disorders, and joint pain are common throughout the poultry-processing industry. OSHA inspection records also record machine injuries and cuts to fingers – including amputations. A recent National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigation has also found poultry processing line speeds resulting in high incidence of muscoskeletal and other injuries.
Last Thursday – a week before this year’s Thanksgiving celebration – I spoke to Esmundo Juárez Carranza, who had worked in a turkey processing plant in Arkansas for seven years. He worked there until this September, when he was fired after leaving his work station to take a bathroom break. His job was to hang plucked turkeys (that had had their feet cut off) by the head as they came off a belt and before they went to the next point in processing. For many years, he said, there were three workers on this line. Two people would work hanging turkeys while the third would pick up the turkeys that had fallen off the line, clean them (including of any feces) and put them back on the line. With three people they were able to spell each other on these tasks, said Carranza. But recently, he said, the company reduced staff so there were only two people on his line. This meant more turkeys falling on the floor with no one to pick them up, he said. It also meant it became harder to take a toilet break. The lack of bathroom breaks was a problem for many workers, some of whom developed kidney stones, he said.
On the typical night shift that Carranza worked, each person would handle about 15,000 turkeys each, so that the two-person line processed about 30,000 turkeys a shift. “Sometimes they’d speed up the line really fast,” he said. “After they cut staff, the station was much dirtier and there was more pressure to get the work done,” he explained.
For this work, which he did five or six days a week, Carranza was paid $10.95 an hour. “There was never a set time for a shift to end,” he said. “We stayed until all the turkeys were processed.” He always had pain in his arms and hands, he said. Carranza said his unemployment claim was denied and that he’s been unable to find a new job so he’s been living on his small amount of savings that is starting to run out.
Carranza is but one of thousands of workers, but his experience, says Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Program, mirrors what SPLC has documented previously in its surveys of poultry workers. Fritzsche explained that in addition to being disciplined for taking bathroom breaks, workers have told of being threatened with firing for using the emergency stop buttons when they needed to halt work on their processing lines.Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist with Food & Water Watch, a DC-based non-profit, concurred that lack of bathroom breaks is a problem endemic in poultry processing. The fact that a great many poultry processing plants are not unionized exacerbates such difficulties in workers’ schedules, he said. Another industry workday issue is that of guaranteed compensation for jobsite time spent changing into and out of required protective clothing These are the kinds of basic rights that it can be hard to assure without union representation.
Proposed changes prompt warnings
The pace of work in turkey and other poultry plants is a pressing issue, as has been reported previously by The Pump Handle. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed a rule that would allow for increased processing line speeds and fewer USDA inspectors. Speaking to reporters on November 21, Ken Ward, a retired USDA poultry inspector with 30 years of experience said the USDA’s proposal would effectively turn over professional government inspections to private company employees with no formal training. What USDA is proposing, said Ward, would remove “highly trained USDA inspectors on slighter lines who inspect each and every turkey” and turn over “bird by bird inspection to company employees who are called sorters.” According to Corbo, USDA’s proposal would eliminate about 800 USDA inspectors.“Current conditions in chicken and turkey plants make it impossible to work with dignity,” said Carranza. “If they increase the line speed even more, the workers won’t be able to do their jobs as well. There will be more contamination in the product, and the companies will blame the workers,” he explained.
The National Turkey Federation (NTF) supports the USDA proposal. In a statement this spring, the NTF president Joel Brandenberger called the proposed rule “a modern, sensible approach that will allow food safety inspectors to focus on the public health” and redeploy its resources in a manner that better protects the public from foodborne diseases and makes our food supply even safer.” NTF says data from a pilot program suggests that “no increase in worker injuries [are] expected under the new system.” Additionally, NTF said that while “improving food safety is the primary concern, the proposed rule fosters the hiring of additional in-plant personnel in many regions.” A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, however, has since questioned the validity of the data the poultry industry has used to support the safety of the USDA proposal.
Butterball, the nation’s largest turkey producer according to industry statistics, declined via its public relations firm to make anyone available for an interview, as did Foster Farms, another of the top ten US turkey producers – all of which are NTF members. Perdue spokesperson Joe Forsthoffer said his company did not have a specific position on the USDA’s proposed rule. Perdue, he explained, thinks the “important thing is that the inspection process continues to reinforce public trust in the American food system.”
Included among USDA’s answers to my questions about turkey processing was a reference to a recent blog post by the National Chicken Council vice president for communications, who suggested “it’s as safe” to work “the omelet station at the country club champagne brunch as it is to work in a poultry processing plant.” This piece, wrote the USDA spokesperson “has a nice holiday touch.” Perhaps a nicer “holiday touch” would be to have the nation’s turkey producers – and the federal government – truly enable the men and women who labor to bring poultry to market to work in safety, health and dignity.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
The poultry industry must have its head stuck in the chicken coop. With Thanksgiving nearly upon us, the industry is trying to convince the public that poultry-processing plants are great places to earn a living. In just about a week, they’ve issued two written statements insisting they have stellar records on workplace safety. Tom Super, VP of communications for the National Chicken Council, wrote on Nov. 22 at the MeatingPlace blog about recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on workplace injury rates. He noted that the case rate for all reportable injuries in illnesses in 2012 in his industry was 4.9 cases per 100 full-time employees. (The case rate for all private sector workplaces was 3.4) Super wrote:
“You’re more likely to get injured or become ill selling an RV to Cousin Eddie than you are working in a poultry processing plant. …And it’s as safe mowing the fairway on the 3rd hole or working the omelet station at the country club champagne brunch as it is to work in a poultry processing plant.”
Well before we all do the chicken dance to celebrate the poultry industry’s safety record, let’s have a reality check.
First, if one looks more closely at the BLS data, you’ll see something telling. Out of 1,066 six-digit NAICS industry codes reported in the BLS injury data, poultry processing is on an illustrious list. It is one of the 17 industries (out of that 1,066) highlighted because it has the highest reported rate of injuries that require workers to be on restricted duty or transferred from their regular tasks. That speaks to the severity of the injuries suffered by poultry-processing workers.
Second, OSHA considers poultry-processing establishments a high-hazard industry subject to its site-specific targeting program. Remember, OSHA is a grossly under-resourced agency which is only able to conduct inspections in just one percent of the nation’s workplaces. Being on OSHA’s inspection list tells us another something about conditions for poultry workers.
Finally, and perhaps most important, worker safety researchers, the press and others have demonstrated time and again the rampant under-reporting by poultry-processing firms of employee injuries and illnesses. Studies of hospital and medical data and workers’ compensation claims have repeatedly found much higher injury rates than those reported by the BLS in its annual survey of occupational injuries and illnesses (SOII). The results come from a sample of employers’ self-reported data on work-related injuries and illnesses. Numerous studies have found that many employers violate injury reporting requirements. The validity of the BLS SOII is a matter that anyone relying on the data should take into account.
The most recent example of under-reporting in the poultry industry comes from an investigation by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of a South Carolina poultry plant. Just a few months ago, the researchers reported that 42 percent of the poultry workers had medical evidence of repetitive motion disorders. To no one’s surprise, the employer did not have a single case of these chronic injuries recorded on its OSHA injury log. That’s the data source used by BLS in its annual survey.
After the poultry industry boasted in another statement about the recent BLS report on its injury rates, several groups shot off a letter to Labor Secretary Tom Perez. (BLS is part of the Labor Department.) They wrote:
“BLS’s publication of data from employers known to undercount injuries and illnesses allows employers to mislead the public. Worse yet, both USDA and the industry are using the BLS data to justify, in part, the USDA’s plan to alter poultry processing inspections. USDA’s plan, if adopted, would have serious detrimental health consequences for poultry workers. The prevalence of musculoskeletal injuries among meat and poultry workers is excessive, and USDA’s proposal will only make the matter worse.”
The poultry industry obviously takes offense at the attention it’s been receiving from the human rights, worker safety and food safety communities about the heavy toll of repetitive motion injuries in its workforce. In Mr. Super’s blog post he wrote:
“What this data show, is that it’s high time the poultry industry stop being framed as the poster boy for dangerous and unsafe workplaces.”
I asked Tom Fritzsche of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for his reaction to the National Chicken Council’s comparison of injury rates among poultry workers with employees at country clubs and in retail stores. (SPLC advocates on behalf of poultry-plant workers, the majority of whom are Latino and African-American women. SPLC investigated working conditions in poultry plants and released the report “Unsafe at These Speeds” earlier this year.) Fritzsche said:
“It takes some real audacity for the industry to say ‘it’s as safe mowing the fairway on the 3rd hole or working the omelet station at the country club champagne brunch, as it is to work in a poultry processing plant.’ We didn’t think to do a comparison study of Alabama country club workers to see how the workplace hazards they face compare to those in poultry plants. But if we had asked country club workers if they would trade jobs with poultry workers, we’d likely get a 100 precent consensus in the ‘no’ column.”
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, The Pump Handle will have another post this week that exposes more about working conditions in turkey processing. Lizzie Grossman will provide a first-hand account from an Arkansas turkey-plant worker and a retired USDA inspector.