02.02.18

Murray, Casey, Scott, DeLauro: Occupational Safety and Health Administration Is Abandoning Its Core Mission By Rejecting Safety Recommendations to Protect Vulnerable Meat and Poultry Plant Workers

In letter, Members of Congress highlight concerns with OSHA rejecting GAO’s safety and health recommendations for meat and poultry workers

 

Recommendations were made by GAO after investigation found workers lack access to bathroom facilities, often resulting in health issues

 

OSHA also rejected longstanding practice to interview workers away from their workplace when they fear of retaliation from employers

 

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta raising questions about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) decision to reject health and safety recommendations for workers in meat and poultry plants, including ensuring workers have access to bathroom facilities. The recommendations by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) were made in response to interviews with workers in five states who were denied access to restrooms, which has resulted in kidney problems and other negative health effects.

 

“By rejecting GAO recommendations that could prevent bad actors from placing workers’ health and safety at risk, we fear that OSHA is abandoning its core mission to ‘assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions,’” wrote the Members of Congress.

 

The Trump administration’s OSHA also rejected the GAO’s recommendation to conduct interviews with workers offsite, despite OSHA’s longstanding practice of doing so. Offsite interviews allow workers to speak candidly about unsafe working conditions without fear of retaliation from employers.

 

The Members also asked OSHA what steps they plans to take to protect contracted sanitation workers who clean and disinfect meat and poultry plants and experience some of the highest amputation rates in the country. A 2016 GAO report found that meat and poultry plants do not include contracted sanitation workers in their safety records.

 

The recent GAO report on workplace safety and health practices in meat and poultry plants was released in December 2017 in response to a request by Senator Murray, Senator Casey, and Representative Scott.

 

Full text of the letter below and a PDF can be found HERE.

 

The GAO report on workplace safety and health in meat and poultry plants can be found HERE.

 

January 31, 2018

 

Hon. R. Alexander Acosta

Secretary of Labor

U.S. Department of Labor

200 Constitution Avenue N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20210       

 

Dear Secretary Acosta:

 

We write to bring to your attention a recent Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) report (“the Report”) on safety and health issues facing workers at meat and poultry plants and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) troubling response to its recommendations.[1] By rejecting GAO recommendations that could prevent bad actors from placing workers’ health and safety at risk, we fear that OSHA is abandoning its core mission to “assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.”[2]

 

Among its findings, GAO reported that workers at many plants have trouble accessing the bathroom when they need it, going so far as to shun eating or drinking during their shifts to avoid reprimand from their supervisors for stepping off the production line.[3] GAO conducted interviews with workers in “five states who said their requests to use the bathroom are often delayed or denied” and with workers “in three states [who] said they had suffered negative health effects, such as kidney problems, from delayed or denied bathroom breaks.”[4]

 

Despite this, OSHA officials told GAO that “they [do] not believe lack of bathroom access [is] a widespread problem in the meat and poultry industry.”[5] Although the report recommends that OSHA inspectors ask workers specifically about bathroom access and increase their use of off-site interviews to alleviate worker fears of retribution for talking to OSHA inspectors at the worksite, OSHA declined these recommendations in its response to the report.[6]

 

Specifically, on October 5, 2017, OSHA responded:                                                                      

 

“GAO’s recommendation to conduct additional offsite interviews . . . is challenging in terms of witness cooperation, resources, and Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHO) safety. Moreover, each inspection requires a flexible approach to address unique workplace hazards. OSHA cannot commit to routinely asking about bathroom access during each inspection at a meat or poultry processing facility.”[7] 

 

It has been a longstanding OSHA practice, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, to conduct offsite interviews when workers fear retaliation for cooperating with OSHA inspectors at the worksite. Indeed, OSHA’s Field Operations Manual provides, “[a] free and open exchange of information between CSHOs and employees is essential to an effective inspection. Interviews provide an opportunity for employees to supply valuable factual information concerning hazardous conditions . . .” and “interviews may be conducted at locations other than the workplace.”[8] 

 

For over twenty years, OSHA has known that bathroom access is an occupational health hazard in meat and poultry plants: the first citations for lack of bathroom access were issued to a poultry plant in the late 1990s.[9] Further, OSHA has a regional emphasis program for the poultry processing industry in Regions IV and VI, which includes “assess[ing] the adequacy of toilet and sanitary facilities, and worker access to them” as part of the program.[10] Logic dictates that the only effective method to ascertain whether that particular hazard exists is to ask workers. The GAO report confirms that in the 21st century, workers in meat and poultry plants continue to suffer from kidney issues and other health hazards as a result of being denied their legal right to use the bathroom.[11] This can include “a host of physiological problems such as urinary tract infections, perinatal complications, and, in extreme cases, renal damage.”[12]

                                                            

Given OSHA’s statutory mandate to assure safe workplaces so far as possible, it is imperative that OSHA adopt these two commonsense measures: asking workers about bathroom access and conducting offsite interviews.  This could help prevent injury and illness among particularly vulnerable workers.

 

Further, we urge OSHA to review a recent Bloomberg Businessweek investigation confirming what GAO has reported and OSHA has recognized: sanitation workers at meat and poultry plants, who are often furnished by labor suppliers and not employed directly by the plants, face egregious safety and health hazards in cleaning and disinfecting meat and poultry plants.[13] Businessweek’s investigation found that from January 2015 through September 2016, one of the sanitation companies - Packers Sanitation Services - had the 14th highest number of severe injuries (defined as an amputation, hospitalization, or the loss of an eye) among the 14,000 companies tracked by OSHA in 29 states.[14]  Its amputation rate of 9.4 dismemberments per 10,000 workers was almost five times higher than for U.S. manufacturing workers as a whole in 2015.[15]

 

Accordingly, we respectfully request that you address the following questions, and provide a response by February 9, 2018:

  1. Will you commit that, when evidence suggests off-site interviews would be useful to secure witness cooperation or prevent retaliation, CSHOs will be required to offer workers the opportunity to conduct such interviews offsite, subject to interviewees’ agreement?
  2. Why did OSHA reject GAO’s recommendation to specifically ask about bathroom access during inspections, given GAO’s findings on meat and poultry workers’ limited access to bathrooms and OSHA’s inclusion of toilet access as an issue in its Regional Emphasis Programs for poultry plants?  In your response, please inform us if the agency has reconsidered its position.  If OSHA has not reconsidered its stance, then please explain how the rejection of this recommendation does not undermine the purposes of the Occupational Safety and Health Act?
  3. Beyond inspections following a severe injury, what specific actions is OSHA taking to address elevated injury rates experienced by sanitation workers at meat and poultry plants?
  4. Many sanitation workers at meat and poultry plants work exclusively on “graveyard” shifts. Will OSHA conduct nighttime programmed inspections (as the Mine Safety and Health Administration routinely does) to assure safe and healthful working conditions for night-shift sanitation workers?  Or will OSHA limit its programmed inspections to routine business hours? If OSHA will not conduct nighttime programmed inspections, please provide a full explanation for that decision.

If you have any questions about this request, please do not hesitate to contact our staff at John_DElia@help.senate.gov, Christine.Godinez@mail.house.gov, Larry_Smar@help.senate.gov, and Elizabeth.Albertine@mail.house.gov. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

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[1] See U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-18-12, Workplace Safety and Health: Better Outreach, Collaboration, and Information Needed to Help Protect Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants (2017), available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/688294.pdf.

[2] 29 U.S.C. § 651(b).

[3] See GAO-18-12, supra note 1, at 27; see also Rebecca A. Schleifer, Book Review: Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time, 2:3 U. Pa. J. Lab. & Emp. L. 603, 604 (2000) (“Many workers, such as assembly line workers . . . have thus resorted to relieving themselves into adult diapers [or] the shop floor  . . . Others refrain from drinking and from voiding during the workday, inviting a host of physiological problems . . . ”).

[4] GAO-18-12, supra note 1, at 27.

[5] Id. at 28.

[6] See id. at 61.

[7] Id.

[8] Field Operations Manual at 3-17, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Aug. 2, 2016) available at https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/Directive_pdf/CPL_02-00-160.pdf (emphasis added).

[9] See Rebecca A. Schleifer, supra note 6, at 604 n.7.; Maggie Jackson, Relief on the way for workers who need to use the bathroom, The Gettysburg Times, March 13, 1998, at 6.

[10] See OSHA Regional Notice: Regional Emphasis Program (REP) for Poultry Processing Facilities CPL 18/09 (CPL 04) at 14, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Oct. 30, 2017) available at https://www.osha.gov/dep/leps/RegionIV/reg4_fy2018_CPL-18-09_poultry.pdf.; OSHA Regional Notice: Regional Emphasis Programs for Poultry Processing Facilities CPL 02-02-030 at 12, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Oct. 1, 2016) available at https://www.osha.gov/dep/leps/RegionVI/reg6_fy2018_poultry_CPL-2-02-00-030.pdf.

[11] See GAO-18-12, supra note 1, at 27.

[12] See Rebecca A. Schleifer, supra note 3, at 604.

[13] See Peter Waldman and Kartikay Mehrotra, America’s Worst Graveyard Shift is Grinding Up Workers, Bloomberg Businessweek (Dec. 29, 2017) available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-12-29/america-s-worst-graveyard-shift-is-grinding-up-workers; OSHA Regional Notice: Regional Emphasis Program (REP) for Poultry Processing Facilities CPL 18/09 (CPL 04) at 3, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Oct. 30, 2017) (emphasis added) available at https://www.osha.gov/dep/leps/RegionIV/reg4_fy2018_CPL-18-09_poultry.pdf (“workers in the sanitation operations in poultry processing facilities (usually during the late shift) are tasked with one of the most hazardous jobs at establishments that manufacture food and are an integral part of poultry processing . . . Sanitation crews are potentially exposed to a variety of hazards including: amputation hazards; cuts and lacerations; struck-by, struck against, and caught in equipment; slips, trips, and falls; electrical shock; and biological and chemical hazards.”); U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-16-337, Workplace Safety and Health: Additional Data Needed to Address Continued Hazards in the Meat and Poultry Industry (2016), available at https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/676796.pdf.

[14] See Waldman & Mehrotra, supra note 13.

[15] See id.