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OSHA Injury Reporting Rule Sheds Light On Meat Packing Accidents

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The average American eats 200 pounds of meat every year. That level of consumption explains why the production lines at meatpacking plants are so fast-paced. Working those lines is one of the most dangerous factory jobs in America. In this first of two reports, Harvest Public Media's Peggy Lowe looks at life on the chain.

PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: Teresa and her husband were just starting a family here in Lincoln, Neb., when she landed a job at a pork processing plant. She came here legally from Mexico in 2000 and felt lucky to get the job. She liked it, and the pay was good - 11.50 an hour.

TERESA: Packaging ham, like 40 to 50 hams per minute...

LOWE: Did you say 50 a minute?

TERESA: Yeah, it was really, really fast.

LOWE: Teresa took on lots of hours and was awarded employee of the month four times. But a couple years into the job, she started experiencing pain in her right shoulder. She had surgery. It didn't help.

TERESA: And I said, OK, why are you guys sending me back to the line when I have pain? They told me, I'm sorry, the doctor said you're going to learn how to live with pain for the rest of your life.

LOWE: Teresa doesn't want us to air her last name because she fears retaliation against family members still working for the company. Injuries are all too common among the half million people who work on the chain. It's the heartbeat of any slaughterhouse. The mechanized driver of hogs, cattle and chickens cut into what consumers prefer - tenderloins and chicken wings, beef chuck and pork chops. The Department of Labor says workers at slaughterhouses lose time or change jobs because of injuries at a rate 70 percent higher than manufacturing workers overall.

JEFF FUNKE: Unfortunately, this industry continues to experience amputations, hospitalizations. This is an industry that needs some work.

LOWE: Jeff Funke is director of the Omaha office of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A new rule put in place last year requires companies to report serious injuries within 24 hours. In that first year, 150 serious accidents were logged at the four top meat companies, according to OSHA data gathered under a Harvest Public Media records request. That's a serious injury about every two and a half days. And those are accidents that didn't even have to be reported to OSHA in the past. Former OSHA official Celeste Monforton calls the new rule a game changer.

CELESTE MONFORTON: I don't want to suggest that they were shooting in the dark. But, I mean, it was a very dim light that let them see what was going on in workplaces.

LOWE: Jeff Funke says OSHA is stepping up protections for workers in meat and chicken plants. But that doesn't necessarily translate to more citations or higher fines.

FUNKE: The goal is to make sure when the worker goes to work, they go home, and they go home in the same condition that they went to work.

GABRIEL: You see the pigs going faster, faster.

LOWE: Gabriel is a young father and husband who worked in a meat plant in a small Nebraska town. He, like Teresa, is a documented worker, but doesn't want us to use his last name out of fear of retaliation. Many of the workers at meatpacking plants are immigrants or recent refugees. They stay on the job because the pay is higher than minimum wage - also, Gabriel says, because they know they can be easily replaced. People come and go quickly. And companies are always hiring. But it's hard work with punishing rates of production. In some chicken plants, for instance, workers process 140 birds a minute.

GABRIEL: You stop the chain because there is a problem, they come out yelling. Hey, let's go, let's go.

LOWE: This furious pace can be tough on workers' muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves, leading to musculoskeletal disorders. Government statistics show meatpacking workers' injuries from repetitive motions are nearly seven times greater than those of other factory workers.

DAN MCCAUSLAND: Production lines are not necessarily, quote unquote, "too fast," but production lines are relentless.

LOWE: Dan McCausland of the North American Meat Institute acknowledges that the industry is labor-intensive. But he points to safety in ergonomic improvements over the past two decades that have helped decrease injuries significantly.

MCCAUSLAND: If we try to run the lines faster, and if in fact we are, quote unquote, "too fast" - whatever that is - we, again, can't do the kind of quality work that we do.

TERESA: When I tried to stay home with my babies, I was so angry. When I wanted to hold my daughter with my right shoulder, I was not able.

LOWE: Teresa is now 31 years old with three kids and still living with pain. She now works part-time at a manufacturing job. Though she urges friends not to work in slaughterhouses, global demand for meat continues to rise and so will demand for workers on the chain. For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.