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A proposed change in poultry-processing inspections could speed up processing lines and raise workers’ risk of repetitive stress injuries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposal would replace some federal inspectors with poultry company employees.

Georgia is a leading poultry producer. According to the University of Georgia, more than 51,000 people in the state are employed in the industry, with many poultry processing plants concentrated in north Georgia.

The proposal would have workers act as inspectors who would look at carcasses individually for contamination or defects. The USDA says the change would allow its inspectors to focus on areas in poultry production that pose the greatest risk to food safety.

The proposed system has existed in a pilot program since 1999 and is currently used in at least 20 chicken processing plants and at least five turkey processing plants. Supporters of expanding these procedures to plants nationwide say poultry processed at the plants in the pilot program has not been linked to any major illnesses.

However, worker safety advocates are very concerned that workers will be under significant pressure when they must inspect hundreds of birds individually on a processing line.

Moreover, the USDA has changed regulations in a way that compromises food safety and further threatens the lives of poultry plant workers. Per the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a rule now allows poultry processing lines to run at 175 birds per minute (bpm).

Before the pandemic, FSIS codified a process that allowed them to grant some poultry companies faster line speeds. However, this new rule goes a step further and makes the change permanent.

Evidence suggests this rule will compromise worker safety when poultry workers already face additional health and safety risks due to COVID-19. A poultry worker’s ability to process raw chicken carcasses along a conveyor belt is at stake. A slew of workplace injuries could result from the work, which involves quickly cutting bone, tissue, and sinew with extremely sharp blades.

A body of scientific evidence suggests that meat-processing workers are at high risk of repetitive injuries if line speeds are ramped up in plants. This has long been a concern for scientists, worker advocates, and food safety experts.

In 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported that poultry workers had carpal tunnel syndrome at rates more than seven times the national average and that repetitive motion was the leading cause of serious injury among poultry workers.

In these cases, workers have had to take a day or more off work to recuperate or have been restricted from their normal activities. Several academic studies have indicated high rates of poultry workers suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome.

Faster line speeds may also put food safety inspectors at risk and make it harder to detect and prevent carcass contamination.

Workers could be exposed to repetitive stress injuries, specifically workplace injuries that affect the hand, wrist, and fingers. Repetitive stress injuries happen when a set of muscles is used repeatedly to perform an activity without a break. Repetitive stress injuries are already a serious risk for poultry-processing workers in meat processing plants, and this change could exacerbate these risks.

The new system allows poultry to be processed at a higher rate than the current rate without adding workers. Companies can save millions of dollars from in-house inspections without adding workers to the lines.

Food Safety and Worker Health

The National Chicken Council, the trade association of the chicken-processing industry, claims that the new rule will not only enhance food safety but also improve worker safety and that workers in the pilot program plants perform better than workers at plants under the traditional inspection system.

There is no doubt that much of the spotlight in this situation has been on food safety. There have been several food-poisoning outbreaks nationwide related to meat and poultry products. Therefore, the main concern seems to be the risk of defective, contaminated, or diseased poultry entering the market, posing a potentially serious hazard.

Nevertheless, equal attention must be paid to workers at these plants who will be placed at additional stress and a higher risk of injuries.