(NPR) A slaughterhouse is a safer place to work than it used to be, according to a government report. But data gathered by federal regulators doesn’t likely capture all the risks faced by meat and poultry workers.
In an update to a 2005 report criticizing safety conditions for workers in the meat industry, the Government Accountability Office says injuries and illnesses are still common. From 2004 to 2013, 151 meat and poultry workers died from injuries sustained at work. The injury rate for meat workers is higher than the rest of the manufacturing industry.
But injuries in the meat industry are also likely to be underreported.
The GAO found several situations that may keep reported numbers from packing plants lower than reality. Here are some examples:
- Sanitary workers who clean machinery in meat plants have suffered amputated limbs and severed fingers. Some have died on the job. But their cases are not always counted with meat and poultry industry data because many work for third-party contractors.
- Medical staff at on-site clinics have encouraged workers to return to the line without seeing a doctor for pain. GAO cited a case where a worker made 90 visits to a nursing station before being referred to a physician.
- Meat and poultry workers are often immigrants or refugees. They may downplay or not report injuries to protect their jobs and livelihoods. Language barriers can also prevent workers from receiving proper safety training.
When injuries aren’t reported and treated, advocates say, they get worse.
“It has profound consequences for the workers,” says Celeste Monforton, an occupational health researcher at George Washington University. “Their injuries are exacerbated, some beyond repair.”
This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on food and agriculture.