News and Updates
Workplace Safety & Health
June 5, 2013
Huffington Post: Poultry Worker Study Finds Alarming Rate Of Carpal Tunnel As USDA Considers Line Speedup
WASHINGTON — A recent government study of workers at a poultry plant in South Carolina determined that four out of 10 showed signs of the painful hand-and-arm condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome, a finding that raises fresh concerns about a federal proposal that would allow plants to speed up their slaughtering lines.
Poultry processing work is full of repetitive motion, and numerous reports have documented the job’s health and safety hazards over the years. The recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) examined just one plant, but workplace health experts say it offers one of the most granular looks at how the job takes a toll on line workers — and how faster line speeds, currently being considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could possibly make things worse.
“This gives you a snapshot of what goes on in one plant,” said Celeste Monforton, a public health expert at George Washington University. “It’s done and it shows damning results. … I don’t know how USDA will dismiss what’s in this.”
NIOSH experts visited the plant twice last year, examining workers who eviscerate, debone and cut chickens to prepare them for sale, according to the report. They interviewed the workers about hand and arm pain and performed nerve conduction tests on them. Forty-two percent had indications of carpal tunnel, and a majority of workers reported “multiple musculoskeletal symptoms,” most commonly hand and wrist pain.
Read the report below.
Out of 318 participants at the plant, 213 “reported pain, burning, numbness or tingling in their hands or wrists in the past 12 months.” Furthermore, two-thirds of those 213 workers reported “awakening from sleep because of these symptoms.”
Despite those findings, public health and labor advocates say these workers may soon see their workloads increase.
Last year, the USDA put forth a proposal to overhaul the poultry inspection process. The change would pull many government inspectors off the slaughtering line where they visually inspect birds, moving resources instead toward the detection of bacteria and other invisible dangers. The rule change would thereby allow poultry plants to speed up their slaughtering lines, delivering savings to poultry companies.
Backers have pitched the proposal as a cost-saver for both government and industry. Critics, however, have called it a giveaway to the poultry business that could have unintended consequences.
Many occupational health experts have objected to the proposal, saying line speeds already move too fast for workers like those in the South Carolina plant that NIOSH visited. USDA officials have told stakeholders privately that the change wouldn’t impact line workers, drawing a distinction between the slaughtering process, where the speedup would occur, and the processing line, where most workers toil.
But critics like Tony Corbo, a lobbyist at the watchdog group Food & Water Watch, say that if chickens are being slaughtered at a faster rate, then it stands to reason they will be processed at a faster rate as well. Corbo told HuffPost he’s skeptical that poultry plants, well-known for their tight controls on labor costs, will be eager to add more workers to the lines to account for a slaughtering speedup. Many plant employees already work essentially shoulder-to-shoulder, he noted.
“If you’re speeding up the lines, guess what — it’s going to impact the speed at which those workers are chopping up the chickens,” Corbo said. “Unless they establish new lines in the factories, those workers are going to be working faster and faster.
“Remember Lucy in the candy factory?” he added.
Poultry line workers are among some of the most vulnerable laborers in the U.S. The polyglot workforces often include immigrants from Latin American and African countries, who generally work for low pay on demanding production schedules. Class-action lawsuits have become common in the industry, with workers claiming they’re shorted on their wages or required to work off the clock.
The NIOSH study was done at the request of the Agriculture Department, and the South Carolina plant was required to undergo the evaluation in order to secure a waiver under the current line-speed rules. A NIOSH spokeswoman said experts will evaluate the workers again after the speedup to determine what, if any, the health effects have been. Those results will be shared with the USDA as well.
An Agriculture Department spokeswoman said the agency “welcomes NIOSH’s work” and is reviewing the study’s findings.
“This data is preliminary,” she said in an email. “We look forward to the full results of NIOSH’s research and to working with them further on this issue.”
The agency wouldn’t be required to alter or scrap the speed-up proposal based on any health findings, and it isn’t clear what bearing NIOSH’s studies will have on the final rule. As Monforton and others noted, the White House and the USDA appear committed to moving forward with the rule.
The president’s most recent budget proposal assumes the rule will go into effect — an assumption that the left-leaning Center for Progressive Reform calls a “rebuke” to concerned parties.
“The President’s budget suggests that most of these concerns, raised by a broad coalition of the public interest community, have been ignored in a headlong rush to finalize a rule that officials believe will save a few million dollars,” the group wrote. “Yet, some hope remains that the rule is not written in stone.”
Read the NIOSH report here.
May 13, 2013
Washington, DC- Today, the Making Change at Walmart campaign and its coalition partners announced the launch of a new website www.ReallyWalmart.org. The website, which showcases a number of video interviews of Walmart employees, community activists, environmentalists and others sharing their experiences with and concerns about Walmart, comes on the heels of Walmart launching a new multimillion-dollar ad-campaign and website of the same name titled “The Real Walmart”.
“Usually I work 36 hours a week but they cut hours…sometimes I even get only 26 hours and I am supposed to be fulltime,” said Chicago native and OUR Walmart member Rose Campbell, who is featured on the site. “I’ve even had 19 hours. I’ve got bills and none of that changes…you have to make do.”
ReallyWalmart.org includes testimony from Walmart employees, community activist and even Actor/Activist Danny Glover. The site also includes footage from elected officials, including President Obama’s keynote address to the Unite Food and Commercial Workers Union in 2008. Also featured is exclusive footage from labor activist and former Bangladesh garment worker Kalpona Aktar.
“We might not have millions of dollars to pay for TV ads, but we have the stories to share that Walmart doesn’t want the public to hear,” said OUR Walmart member Charlene Fletcher. “The truth is that Walmart is a company that puts profits over people and employs tactics and strategies that keep employees like me in jobs that don’t let us provide for our families. Even while Walmart’s profits are going up, my coworkers and I have to rely on food stamps just to cover groceries.”
Citing nearly $16 billion in annual profits and a CEO earning 1000 times the average employee, Walmart employees and communities across the globe are calling for a change of course at the company. Making Change at Walmart is calling on the company to raise wages, an end to retaliation against employees who speak out as well as increased access to full time hours so that employees make a minimum of $25,000 per year.
Additionally, the group is also calling on Walmart sign a binding agreement on fire and building safety to help prevent tragedies like last month’s Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh which caused the death of more than 1,000 garment workers.
Over the course of the last year, Walmart has seen its reputation and business practices questioned amidst bribery allegations, tragedies in its supply chain and turmoil amongst its workforce including strikes launched last year for the first time in the company’s 51 year history. Since 2011 Walmart has seen a decline in its reputational index rating, while its competitors have seen an increase during the same period and support for changing course at Walmart has been growing. Last fall, more than 30,000 supporters joined striking workers on picket lines around Black Friday and since then a number of actions have taken place at Walmart stores across the country including last month when hundreds of OUR Walmart members and their supporters called on the company to correct scheduling problems within stores.
The new website highlights stories from various Walmart employees including those who have called on the company to change course and leadership. Additionally, it features stories of Walmart employees who receive public assistance and those work along the supply chain.
UFCW and OUR Walmart have the purpose of helping Wal-Mart employees as individuals or groups in their dealings with Wal-Mart over labor rights and standards and their efforts to have Wal-Mart publically commit to adhering to labor rights and standards. UFCW and OUR Walmart have no intent to have Walmart recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representative of Walmart employees.
March 18, 2013
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Joe Hansen, International President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), today released the following statement in response to the nomination of Tom Perez as the next Secretary of Labor.
“The UFCW strongly supports the nomination of Tom Perez as Labor Secretary. Tom led the Maryland Department of Labor with excellence and is strongly qualified for this post. Now more than ever, workers need a champion at the Department that will fight for fair wages, safe workplaces, and the right to organize. I am confident Tom Perez will provide that leadership.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) represents more than 1.3 million workers, primarily in the retail and meatpacking, food processing and poultry industries. The UFCW protects the rights of workers and strengthens America’s middle class by fighting for health care reform, living wages, retirement security, safe working conditions and the right to unionize so that working men and women and their families can realize the American Dream. For more information about the UFCW’s effort to protect workers’ rights and strengthen America’s middle class, visit www.ufcw.org, or join our online community at www.facebook.com/UFCWinternational and www.twitter.com/ufcw.
February 11, 2013
Three women a day are killed as a result of domestic violence. Every one out of five women are raped in their lifetime. These sobering statistics are why reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) should be above petty politics. Unfortunately, House Republicans are casting aside their moral compass for their political one and women across the country are being left vulnerable.
The annual incidence of domestic violence has decreased by more than 53 percent since VAWA became law in 1994 and reporting by victims has also increased by 51 percent. This dramatic improvement helps explain why the VAWA has been reauthorized twice since 1994 without controversy.
The latest version of the bill, which has bipartisan support in the Senate from Democrats and Republicans, broadens the law by expanding its provisions to cover Native Americans, gays, and lesbians. The bill would also give more emphasis to sexual assault prevention and take steps to reduce the rape kit backlog.
While the bill is expected to pass in the Senate with bipartisan support, House Republicans are balking at the prospect of allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Native Americans who commit domestic and sexual violence on reservations. Perhaps they should look at the statistics.
Compared with other groups, Native American women are more likely to be raped and abused. The National Congress of American Indians released findings that showed 39 percent of American Indian and Alaska native women will experience violence by a partner in their lifetimes.
Currently, non-Native Americans who abuse their spouses often go unpunished because federal authorities don’t have the resources to pursue misdemeanors committed on reservations.
At UFCW, we have a long, proud history of standing up for fair and equal treatment of all workers both inside and outside of the workplace. Expanding the VAWA to Native Americans, gays, and lesbians isn’t just an essential step towards ensuring the domestic abuse crisis in this country is met, it’s also the right and fair thing to do.
Moderate House Republicans should call on their leadership to pass the bipartisan Senate bill as soon as they are able. Lives are depending upon this bill getting off the back burner and passing. The battered and abused don’t have time for these political games.
December 14, 2012
Macy’s recently announced that most of its stores will be open continuously in the 48 hours leading up to Christmas Eve for its last “One Day Sale” of the season. While this is good news for shoppers, it’s not so great for the many retail workers who are struggling this holiday season.
The UFCW represents thousands of Macy’s workers throughout the country who have a voice in their scheduling and earn premium pay on holidays thanks to a union contract that they negotiated with their employers. That contract is the difference between a Macy’s worker with no union representation being forced to work undesirable hours on a holiday and a union Macy’s worker who wants to pick up an additional shift.
The retail sector is the largest employment industry in the United States, and retail jobs are increasingly setting the working and living standards for American workers. That’s why it’s critically important that all employers in this industry compensate workers with the kind of pay and benefits that allow them to live in the middle class.
Academic studies, including a recent report by Demos, provide quantitative evidence that retailers, workers, and the U.S. economy stands to benefit greatly if retail companies invest in their workforce. According to the Demos report, raising wages for full-time retail workers at the nation’s largest retail companies (those employing at least 1,000 workers) would result in improving the lives of more than 1.5 million retail workers and their families who are currently living in poverty or hovering just above the poverty line.
The entire UFCW family is proud of the courage that Macy’s workers show every day — in the face of retaliation from management and in some instances, heroic actions in the face of violence, as was the case of the Macy’s worker who selflessly looked after others when a gunman opened fire at a mall in Oregon. We wish our members and all Macy’s workers around the country a safe and peaceful holiday season.
May 30, 2012
Several of our UFCW members who work in meatpacking, poultry and food processing plants spend their days working around refrigeration systems that use ammonia – a Highly Hazardous chemical. It is easy and important for stewards to find out if their company is complying with OSHA’s standards about how to operate safely with Highly Hazardous chemicals. The main standard is Process Safety Management (PSM). PSM gives workers and their representatives the right to ask for information about the ammonia system.
OSHA’s PSM Standard applies to most meat packing, poultry, and food processing plants. One PSM requirement is that the company must conduct an audit of their compliance every three years. Stewards can request to see the recommendations from the past two audits and find out what actions have been taken. By looking at the audit results and the follow-up stewards can see if the company is taking their PSM seriously.
“When I was sent out for training, I received a lot of information about PSM that I realized could be helpful to not only me, but also my co-workers at the plant,” said Jim Oldenburg, a steward at JBS and a member of UFCW Local 1473 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Even though every worker at the plant cannot receive specialized PSM training, workers do have the right to stay informed about their plant’s PSM program and come to their stewards with questions or concerns. To help his co-workers at the plant, Oldenburg submitted a list of PSM questions and responses to the company. These questions were developed by the Industrial Refrigeration Consortium at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
“People look to me to help them and I’m doing everything that I can for them every day. Having this information available is just one of them,” said Oldenburg.
Here are the ten questions Jim submitted to management. According to the PSM standard your company must respond adequately to your concerns. Their responses to these questions can give you a sense of the condition of your plant’s ammonia safety program. If you need help evaluating the company’s response you can email the UFCW Health and Safety Representative for Process Safety Management at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. When was our last compliance audit?
2. Can you show me the closeout of recommendations from the last compliance audit?
3. Can you provide me a copy of the most recent incident report and documentation that shows how we closed out recommendations/from the incident report?
4. When was our last Process Hazard Analysis (PHA) conducted and can you show me documentation that closes out the recommendations from the last PHA?
5. How often do we certify our plant’s written operating procedures for the covered process?
6. What training program do we have for our operators and what are the means used to verify they have understood the training?
7. How often do we do refresher training?
8. Based on our plant’s mechanical integrity program, what is the next piece of equipment scheduled for retirement and when is it scheduled to come out of service?
9. What criteria do we use to evaluate contractors that work on our covered process?
10. What was the last change made to our system and can you show me the documentation for that change?
May 8, 2012
WASHINGTON – The almost $600,000 settlement announced Monday between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and DeMoulas Super Markets Inc., commonly known as Market Basket, is a step forward for the safety of retail workers everywhere. The settlement requires safety fixes at all of the companys more than 60 stores across Massachusetts and New Hampshire, along with real safety programs for workers going forward.
Its critical that OSHA continues to take company-wide actions like these to protect workers, said Jackie Nowell, Director of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Occupational Safety and Health Office. Rather than addressing problems with employers like Market Basket piecemeal and leaving workers at risk OSHA can make real changes to systematic problems that occur across an entire company.
The enforcement action came after repeat safety violations by the company including two serious injuries to Market Basket workers in almost-identical falls from unguarded storage areas in two different stores. Workers at Market Basket dont have a union at their work, making it harder to stand up for safer stores.
This new enforcement program clearly shows that when OSHA finally gets tough with bad-actor employers, workers get better protection far faster than waiting on empty promises by corporate executives to comply with our basic safety laws, said Nowell. We hope the Obama Administration will continue using these new tools to give all workers especially the many retail workers who dont yet have a union a safe place to work.
April 20, 2012
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Joe Hansen, International President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), released the following statement regarding the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to extend the comment period on its proposed poultry inspection rule.
“The UFCW applauds Secretary Tom Vilsack’s decision to extend the comment period on USDA’s proposed poultry inspection rule in order to further study its impact on worker safety. We have said all along that this rule should be halted until it is proven that increased line speeds are safe for workers. The UFCW will use this 30-day extension to work directly with USDA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Obama Administration to determine a course of action to study the probable effects of increased line speeds on worker health and safety. Today is a victory for all poultry workers who can rest assured that their safety on the job is being taken seriously.”
April 18, 2012
(Washington, D.C.) — Joe Hansen, International President of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union, today released the following statement after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) approved a final rule to modernize the union election process.
“”This NLRB rule is a modest but important first step toward ensuring a level playing field for workers in the union election process. Preventing unnecessary delays and frivolous litigation means less time for employers to intimidate, harass, and in some cases fire pro-union employees. Every worker has the right to decide whether he or she wants a union, free of interference.
“Now it is time for the Senate to confirm President Obama’s nominees to the NLRB. Leaving the Board short of a quorum in 2012 is unacceptable.”
April 11, 2012
WASHINGTON, DC—The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) today announced its opposition to a Big Poultry-driven inspection process being considered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The proposed rule, which would increase the speed that birds are processed from 70-91 a minute to a maximum of 175 a minute, could put workers at poultry plants in increased danger.
“Increased line speeds means increased bottom lines for Big Poultry,” said Mark Laurtisen, UFCW International Vice President and Director of the Food Processing, Packing and Manufacturing Division. “For workers, it means more danger on the job.”
By increasing line speed so dramatically, workers will be at heightened risk of repetitive motion related injuries. In fact, a recent study by Wake Forest University showed that 59 percent of poultry workers had definite or possible carpal tunnel syndrome at current line speeds. Despite these alarming statistics, no comprehensive effort has been made to determine the impact this proposed system will have on the health and safety of workers.
“Quite frankly, it is no surprise that Big Poultry wants to rush this new system into operation,” Lauritsen said. “That’s why USDA—as the responsible regulator—must slow this process down until it can guarantee that workers are protected.”
The UFCW is calling on USDA to halt this rule until the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducts comprehensive studies on the impact it would have on the health and safety of workers in poultry plants. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must then use that information to develop a standard that would adequately protect workers.
Many UFCW members have already submitted their opposition to USDA in advance of the April 26 comment deadline. The UFCW will continue its push for worker safety into the summer and beyond.