A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tackles the issue of workplace safety in the poultry industry. The GAO report, entitled “Workplace Safety and Health: Additional Data Needed to Address Continued Hazards in the Meat and Poultry Industry,” found that “Injury and illness rates in the meat and poultry slaughtering and processing industry declined from 2004 through 2013, similar to rates in all U.S. manufacturing, according to Department of Labor (DOL) data. The rates declined from an estimated 9.8 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2004 to 5.7 in 2013.

However, the report also adds that these rates continued to be higher than rates for manufacturing overall.

“Meat workers sustained a higher estimated rate of injuries and illnesses than poultry workers, according to DOL data,” the report states. “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) evaluations and academic studies have found that workers continue to face the hazardous conditions GAO cited in 2005, including tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders, exposure to chemicals and pathogens, and traumatic injuries from machines and tools.”

The report also mentions the struggles that the DOL has in gathering data on injury and illness rates for meat and poultry workers because of underreporting and inadequate data collection.

“For example, workers may underreport injuries and illnesses because they fear losing their jobs, and employers may underreport because of concerns about potential costs.

“Another data gathering challenge is that DOL only collects detailed data for those injuries and illnesses that result in a worker having to take days away from work. These detailed data do not include injuries and illnesses such as musculoskeletal disorders that result in a worker being placed on work restriction or transferred to another job,” it adds.

GAO is making three recommendations, including that DOL improve its data on musculoskeletal disorders and sanitation workers in the meat and poultry industry. DOL, USDA, and CDC concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

The read the report in its entirety, go to http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/676796.pdf.

Trade associations representing the meat and poultry industry state that the report shows positive steps have been made to improve safety in the workplace.

The North American Meat Institute released a statement noting that the report, ”highlights the greatly improved worker safety record of the meat and poultry industry over the last 10 years. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 2014 incidence rates for non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses reached a new, all-time industry low of 5.5 cases per 100 full-time workers per year. Historic BLS data reveal that the meat and poultry industry has shown continuous improvement over the years, nearly halving the injury and illness rate from 9.8 per 100 workers in 2004, the last time the GAO published a report on worker safety in the meat and poultry industry. The data show that the meat and poultry industry is safer to work in than the industries that produce products used to cook meat (kitchen utensil, pot and pan manufacturing) and drink with your meal (soft drink and bottled water manufacturing, frozen fruit and vegetable juice manufacturing.) Nor did the meat and poultry industry even make the cut in a recent Time analysis looking at the top 20 most dangerous jobs in America based on work place fatalities.

“While the report raises concerns about recordkeeping in the industry, a recent Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) special emphasis evaluating recordkeeping in the meat and poultry industry and several others did not find regular under recording of injuries as alleged in the GAO report,” NAMI adds.

“Worker safety has been a key priority in the meat industry over the last 25 years and the positive results of our efforts are clear,” said North American Meat Institute (NAMI) President and CEO Barry Carpenter. “There is always room for improvement and we will look closely at the GAO recommendations to see how they can best be implemented in the industry.”

The National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation and U.S. Poultry & Egg Association cooperated with the GAO for more than a year, through stakeholder interviews and processing plant visits, the groups said in a joint release.

“We are pleased to see the report emphasizes the fact that injuries and illnesses have decreased dramatically in the poultry processing industry over the past several years,” they stated. “Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome, by recognizing the value of implementing ergonomics and medical intervention principles, and working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop guidelines that further help protect our workforce.”

Sources: GAO, NAMI, National Turkey Federation