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Rousmaniere: Who Protects Workers from Injury?

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The individual worker observes, learns and adapts to hazards to stay safe. But the employer's role is usually overwhelmingly important in preventing injury.  Somebody may need to push management to correct a poor safety record, and that somebody often is an outsider.  Who might it be? A recent safety report on a South Carolina poultry plant provides a case study of who influences management.

The industry-sponsored American Meat Institute says that "workers currently enjoy significantly improved safety conditions, with a steady trend of continuous improvement." From 1992 to 2012, the injury and illness rate of injuries per 100 poultry-processing workers fell from 21.1 to 4.9. The Institute credits ergonomic guidelines that were jointly authored by the industry, OSHA and the United Food and Commercial Workers. And, says the Institute, employers began to cooperate on work safety.
 
Safety statistics might improve overall, yet pushing production higher, a preoccupation of meat processors, inherently increases risk. A risk manager of a major national retailer told me that with any change in store procedures, even if it doesn't involve a speedup, spell trouble when safety is not carefully managed.  

There are no reliable data showing how many American worksites at any time have deep safety troubles, much less how they cycle in and out of trouble.  There is some evidence that about one in five worksites are high above their industry norms in work injuries.

A specific instance was reported in March of this year by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. It performed a study of an 800,000-birds-a-week, 1,560-worker poultry-processing plant in South Carolina.  A production redesign to boost productivity triggered the request by the employer for the study. 



The NIOSH-funded team reported that 42% of "participants [in the study] at baseline had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome on the basis of our case definition."

The analysts applied some recently developed “threshold limit values,” or TLVs, to gauge if workers were working above acceptable levels of injury risk.  About a third of participating workers performed job tasks that were above the TLV levels.

TLVs for work involving hands were first proposed around 2000. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists developed them. Only recently have independent researchers validated them.  This time line is consistent with the impression that a breakthrough in work safety takes a decade from concept to practice and depends upon government support. 

Someone outside the plant might have discerned that safety was awry.

What about the workers' compensation insurer?  The head of claims for a workers' compensation insurer told me she's seen a lot of companies where safety standards collapsed.  "Our red flag is claim activity. If injuries are not seen as a common threat by the entire company, safety will fail.  A key safety director will have no clothes.  We have seen work safe companies have a change in management, or where production comes to the forefront, and injuries rise within a year.  Deterioration happens much more quickly than improvement."

Medical providers who treat injuries might ring the alarm, but that’s not a sure thing. Warren Burrows, a hand surgeon who has treated thousand of poultry plant workers, told me that he was invited sometimes to tour poultry plants. But, he told me, doctors like him are not trained to pick up clues of safety problems during walk-throughs. 

The majority of workers referred to Burrows by plants, other doctors and insurers, did suffer from occupationally caused conditions needing care. If referrals spiked from a known plant, he might phone a contact, but the contacts might not follow up.  He had better success contacting a claims adjuster.

Legal action is a possible but uncertain corrective. The Southern Poverty Law Center has criticized evisceration line speed-ups at southern poultry plants.  It released a report, Unsafe at these Speeds, in March 2013.  On April 24 of this year, the Center filed a complaint a against an Alabama poultry plant owned by Wayne Farms and a staffing agency that recruits for the plant workers from Puerto Rico. According to the Center, the work is unnecessarily dangerous and workers are discouraged from filing workers' compensation claims. Workers suffer "debilitating pain in their hands, respiratory problems, cuts, gnarled fingers and chemical burns."

Tom Fritzsche, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project in Montgomery, Alabama, paints a daunting picture of poultry workers getting legal help.  "A big challenge is people know they are getting hurt in some way, but don't connect it with work.  The injuries build up over time until they can't work any more."

To Fritzsche, the way in which workers' compensation provides individual rather than class remedies vitiates the potential for legal pressure on the employer.  Even individual claims are not assured.  "In Alabama, the benefits are very low and require a lot of work for the attorney to take on the case." Filing a complaint with OSHA, he says, might lead to a $7,000 fine but that might be negotiated down.  He says that OSHA can’t impose a fine for excessive line speed until it sets a precise work speed standard. The federal agency’s published guidelines for poultry plants do not include a standard.

This messy mix of private and public sector parties engaged in work injury risk is similar, a risk consultant told me, to how risks are dealt with in other areas of the economy. Too bad the parties don't talk with each other that much.


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