Friday, July 06, 2018

The Cost of Pork

Amputations, fractured fingers, second-degree burns and head trauma are just some of the serious injuries suffered by US meat plant workers every week.

US meat workers are already three times more likely to suffer serious injury than the average American worker, and pork and beef workers nearly seven times more likely to suffer repetitive strain injuries. And some fear that plans to remove speed restrictions on pig processing lines – currently being debated by the government – will only make the work more difficult.

“Every co-worker I know has been injured at some point,” plant worker Eric Fuerstenberg told the USDA as they examined the case for implementing reforms that would include speeding up the line. “I can attest that the line speeds are already too fast to keep up with. Please, I am asking you not to increase them any more.”

Records compiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reveal that, on average, there are at least 17 “severe” incidents a month in US meat plants. These injuries are classified as those involving “hospitalisations, amputations or loss of an eye”.

Amputations happen on average twice a week, according to the data. There were 270 incidents in a 31-month period spanning 2015 to 2017, according to the OSHA figures. Most of the incidents involved the amputation of fingers or fingertips, but there were recordings of lost hands, arms or toes. During the period there were a total of 550 serious injuries which cover 22 of the 50 states so the true total for the USA would be substantially higher.
Recorded injuries include:
  • An employee’s left arm had to be surgically amputated at the shoulder after it was pulled into the cubing machine during sanitation
  • A worker was reaching down to pick up a box to clear a jam when his jacket became caught in a roller. As he tried to pull it out, his hand got pulled in as well. His hand and lower arm were crushed
  • While an employee was attempting to remove the ribs from the spine of a cattle rib set, his hand made contact with a running vertical band saw and two of his fingers were amputated
  • An employee working on a sanitation crew pushed the stop button after removing parts from the upper portion of a machine. The employee then placed his foot into a horizontal grinder while climbing down from the machine, causing all five toes on his right foot to be amputated
  • A worker was clearing the hydrolyzer when back pressure caused hot feathers to discharge on to him. As he moved out of the way, he fell six feet, breaking a bone over his left eye and suffering first- and second-degree burns to the hands, arms, face and neck.
  • Chronic ailments are an even bigger issue, leaving many workers permanently disabled, and leading to losses and costs, both individually and publicly. According to one published study, carpal tunnel syndrome costs more than $2bn annually in medical treatment costs alone, for workers in all US industries.
  • Amanda Hitt, from the Food Integrity Campaign, said: “Increased line speeds pose a real threat to workers. In addition to heinous injuries resulting from speed such as amputations and physical injury, workers are also at risk from injuries resulting from repeated motions. A pork plant worker may make … hard-cutting knife motions while working on a line. This repetition puts the worker at risk of debilitating musculoskeletal problems.”
  • The New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS) will re-allocate some of the line inspection duties, and remove speed caps from the processing lines. USDA estimates that it could potentially save the agency more than $6m (£4.5m) a year.
    But the plans will lead to more injuries, believe unions and workers. “When it’s production at all costs, people are going to get hurt,” said Mark Lauritsen, head of the meatpacking division for United Food and Commercial Workers (the main union for meat plant worker in the US). “There’s really no need for this, taking the caps off the line speed – there’s plenty of capacity to kill plenty of pigs … but they’re just getting greedy about it.”
  • “I am strongly opposed to any provision that would allow employers to increase the number of forceful repetitions workers are required to perform,” David Michaels, the former top OSHA administrator under President Obama, wrote in response to the plans. “The proposed rule allows employers to increase the line speed without adding additional workers. This will, without doubt, increase worker injuries and illnesses.”

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