A congressional watchdog agency called on the federal government Thursday to better protect meatpacking workers, who are often exposed to dangerous chemicals, not allowed bathroom breaks and refused medical treatment.
The General Accountability Office’s report said the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration faces a challenge when it comes to addressing safety concerns in meat and poultry plants because workers may not report problems out of fear of retaliation.
The report also said OSHA is largely unaware of the problem of workers being denied bathroom breaks, an issue identified in a 2016 report by worker-advocacy nonprofit Oxfam America.
The GAO report is a follow-up to its May 2016 study that found meatpacking workers have the highest injury rates of any industry, even though those numbers are underreported.
“Every worker should be able to make a living without risking their health or safety, so it’s deeply concerning to hear workers in meat and poultry factories are knowingly being put in harm’s way,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murphy, a Democrat from Washington state, said Thursday in a statement.
The GAO report called on OSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to properly coordinate to review chemical safety reviews, since “gaps in federal efforts create challenges to protecting workers from certain chemical hazards.”
The report also urged OSHA to interview workers away from the workplace so they could be candid about restroom access and suggested NIOSH to conduct a study on whether a combination of chemicals used in poultry and meat processing could hurt workers.
OSHA did not immediately return a request for comment.
Barry Carpenter, the president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said that the "tight labor market" means there is an "even stronger incentive to protect our employees and ensure that they are healthy and able to perform their jobs."
The industry trade group's head also said "that some parts of the GAO report appear to rely on anecdotes and it is difficult for us to respond to those." But, he added, "we can say that our industry has always been committed to continuous improvement in workplace safety, and OSHA data reflect this commitment in the form of sustained declines in injury and illness rates for the past several decades.”
The report was lauded by groups like Oxfam and the National Employment Law Project. Deborah Berkowitz, a senior fellow with the project who's also a former OSHA official, said the report shows the government isn't appropriately responding to serious health issues.
“The report confirms that the meat and poultry industry, in its quest to keep production lines running at any and all costs, is not only cutting corners on worker safety but further dehumanizing workers by denying them legally required bathroom breaks,” she said.
Some meatpacking companies are taking steps to ensure workers' safety, thanks in part to growing consumer awareness. For instance, Tyson Foods earlier this year announced an expansion of a workplace safety pilot program that provides for regularly scheduled bathroom breaks, more attention to line speeds in the plants and training on workers’ rights.
A Harvest Public Media investigation published in 2016 showed OSHA imposed low fines on meat companies for injuries, amputations and even deaths.