Every plant has some health and safety problems. One of the most effective ways to address these problems can be through an active health and safety committee within the local union.
Our Work Is Hard and Dangerous
Workers in the poultry, meat or food processing industries have some of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and face serious health and safety problems at their places of work. Government studies and one-on-one interviews with workers in these industries speak to the incredible dangers they face. Meatpacking, poultry slaughter and processing, and food processing workers have injury and illness rates far above the national average than all other manufacturing jobs combined. While the dangers are undeniable, workers can have tremendous power by understanding the rules and laws that protect them and exercising their right to unionize to make their workplaces safer. This publication is designed for workers in these industries, and covers the laws that protect workers, workplace hazards that exist, and how workers can use safety committees to help improve conditions in the workplace.
Industry Hazards and Injuries
The meatpacking industry is among industries with the highest injury and illness incident rates—almost three times the average for all private industry. The industry also has the second highest rates of injuries and illnesses with days away from work. The food processing and poultry industries also rank higher on average for industry hazards and injuries.
In meat and poultry processing plants, hand tools, such as knives and scissors, account for as much as half of the total number of cuts and serious lacerations. Crowded and slippery working conditions greatly increase the risk of injuries, and dangerous, unguarded machinery can result in lost fingers, hands and limbs, crushed bones and deaths.
Back injuries are common from heavy lifting and carrying, unloading and loading products, and pushing meat along overhead rails.
Musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis occur at high rates among meatpacking workers, poultry workers and other food processing workers since these jobs involve repetitive motions of the wrist and hands that are often in a bent position. Chemicals commonly found in food processing plants—such as ammonia, chlorine, and cleaning chemicals—can also cause a variety of health problems such as irritation of the nose, throat and lungs. Finally, meatpacking, poultry and food processing plants often expose workers to dangerously high noise levels that can cause permanent hearing loss as well as health problems associated with stress.
Joint Labor-Management Committees
The hazards that workers encounter in these industries underscore the importance of being a member of a joint labor-management safety committee and/or a local union safety committee. Safety committees provide the structure for workers and management to work together to identify problems and come up with solutions to correct them. Many of dangerous conditions in plants can beeliminated or made safer,and on the job deaths, injuries and illnesses can be prevented. Your employer has the responsibility under the law to provide a safe and healthy workplace for all workers and to fix unsafe conditions.
To be effective, the local union safety committee should have the right to conduct a walk around safety inspection of the entire plant. This can be done with management—as part of a joint union-management safety committee—or the union can do their own inspection. The committee should conduct periodic inspections of the entire plant at least once a month, and each member should look over his or her own work area every day and talk to workers to identify hazardous conditions.
The committee also should be checking the injury and illness records, including the OSHA 300 Log which the employer is required by law to maintain and all employees have the right to see. These logs will help identify high hazard areas. (See the section on Union Action for more information on OSHA 300 Logs.)
This manual will help you:
- Understand the laws that protect workers;
- Identify hazardous conditions;
- Inspect the workplace for hazards;
- Understand methods for correcting hazards;
- Build a strong joint labor/management safety and health committee;
- Understand safety and health standards and regulations;
- Understand your rights under OSHA; and
- Understand how to file a complaint with OSHA and what your rights are during an inspection.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct), passed by Congress in 1970, puts the responsibility on employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Under the OSHAct, the employer must comply with hundreds of federal and state regulations which cover specific hazards. Almost all private employers are covered.
The OSHAct also created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA enacts the standards and regulations that employers must comply with, and inspects workplaces to ensure that employers are complying with the regulations. OSHA also helps to enforce workers’ rights; however, it is limited in its enforcement powers due to the low number of inspectors who are employed to inspect workplaces. With less than 2,200 federal and state OSHA inspectors on staff, it would take over 130 years for every workplace in the United States to be inspected. That’s why it’s important that workers become actively involved in the safetythe safety and health committees in their workplace to ensure that employers adhere to OSHA standards.
Beware of Behavior-Based Safety Programs
Behavior-based safety programs focus on changing the behavior of workers in order to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses instead of identifying hazardous workplace conditions and risks associated with increased line speeds, mandatory overtime, short staffing or an insufficient workforce to get the job done safely. This type of program can undermine effective safety committees by blaming workers for getting hurt and leaving unsafe conditions uncorrected.
The inspection process is the primary tool a safety committee member has to detect hazardous workplace conditionsworkplace conditions, such as unguarded machinery, slippery floors or poorly designed jobs that can result in musculoskeletal disorders. It is important to keep a record of every inspection as a reference to use to incorporate change.