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Report: New OSHA Rule Reveals Slaughterhouse Worker Amputations

Courtesy Oxfam America
A poultry worker debones chicken at a processing plant in Montgomery, Ala., where deboning 25 to 30 chickens a minute is a common industry standard.

In the first nine months of 2015, workers in meat-packing plants owned by Tyson Foods averaged at least one amputation a month. 

That report was gleaned from a Freedom of Information Act request by Celeste Monforton, a George Washington University occupational health professor.

Monforton writes on her blog that she sought the data because of a new regulation that requires companies to report injuries to OSHA within 24 hours. She focused on one of the big meatpackers, Tyson, to get a feel for how the new rule, which kicked in on Jan. 1, 2015, would play out.

"Skinners. Band saws. Wing saws. Hide grippers. The names of these tools tell just part of the story of why these amputations occurred," Monforton wrote. "Their names, however, provide more than an inkling about the physical demands of these jobs."

Most of the amputations occurred in beef plants, Monforton found, including a sanitation worker's loss of both hands at a Tyson plant in St. Joseph, Mo., and two incidents when employees at a Lexington, Neb., slaughterhouse lost fingers.

Tyson announced a new workplace safety program last year. I contacted a company representative in November, seeking a tour of a facility to see the details of the new plan, but I didn't get a response.

Monforton's report is significant because OSHA data is rarely up-to-date – the most recent in the Department of Labor's online databases is from 2013.

OSHA data is also viewed suspiciously by many experts – considered inaccurate and under-reported by as much as 30 percent to 70 percent, according to Monforton -- because it is gathered from employers. The data isn't analyzed by OSHA for accuracy, is often gathered years after the accidents, and the companies often penalize workers who make injury reports, the GAO, a congressional watchdog, found.

"For example, workers may not report a work-related injury or illness because they fear job loss or other disciplinary action, or fear jeopardizing rewards based on having low injury and illness rates," the GAO reported in 2009.

Last year, Oxfam America released a report calling on consumers and the government to help better what it said are "grim" conditions for the largely invisible people who work at the four largest poultry companies, which includes Tyson.

As consumer groups push the meat industry on concerns of the welfare of meat animals, there appears to be little consumer concern for how workers in the meat industry are treated.

Here at Harvest Public Media, we’ve reported on the immigrant influx into the Midwest slaughterhouses and how their children grow up mostly in the shadows, thanks to their immigration status and location in rural areas.

What do you think? Are you concerned about how workers are treated in U.S. meat-packing plants? Or have you or a family member worked in a slaughterhouse?

Click here to offer your experience to our ongoing look into workplace safety at slaughterhouses.

Peggy Lowejoined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.