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Top regulator can’t afford to improve safety for meatpackers

Setting a production line speed standard would help, but OSHA doesn't have the resources to create it.

These can move as fast as 140 birds per minute. (Photo by flickr user USDAgov, used under a Creative Commons commercial attribution license)

Though statistics show it's gotten safer in recent years, meatpacking is still one of the nation's most dangerous jobs. Gigantic plants dispatch with thousands upon thousands of animals a day, requiring workers to operate sharp tools at high speeds, over and over again. The work can take its toll suddenly, in the form of an injury, of which 28,100 were reported in 2013 (with the caveat that underreporting is common). Or it can manifest in the form of a repetitive stress condition -- a government investigation out just a few weeks ago found that 35 percent of workers in one Maryland poultry plant had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome.

As it told a number of worker advocacy groups last month, though, the nation's top safety watchdog doesn't have the money to set rules for the industry and enforce them.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not specifically regulate meat processing, as it does in other industries, including mining and grain processing. There are voluntary guidelines, and there's a blanket protection, which says that companies have a "general duty" to protect their workers using the best available information.

Over the past few years, organizations that represent people who work in slaughterhouses -- a heavily Latino workforce -- have pushed OSHA to set standards for the speed at which a production line can run, which is a primary factor in how many injuries occur. The need seemed particularly dire in 2013, when the Agriculture Department proposed allowing poultry plants to go from 140 birds per minute to 175.

After strong protest from unions, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Council of La Raza and others, the USDA backed down, and kept the line speed the same. But it pushed the agency to answer a petition lodged in 2013 that laid out why the problem was so dire and how OSHA could help.

Back in March, OSHA denied that petition -- but not because it disagreed. In its letter, it acknowledged the severity of the problem. However, the agency explained, ergonomic problems in poultry plants are complex and would require an in-depth study to come up with a rule.

"At this time, the Agency's limited resources do not allow for this comprehensive analysis and rulemaking effort," the letter read. "Consequently, your petition for OSHA to develop a work speed standard in the meatpacking and poultry industries is denied."

Then, the agency laid out its efforts to "assist" and "encourage" employers to keep their workers safe.

That's not uncommon, as OSHA has struggled to comply with more onerous documentation requirements for the safety standards it sets. A Government Accountability Office report in 2012 found that it takes nearly eight years on average to issue a new rule, because of the heavy burden of documentation needed to withstand inevitable industry lawsuits. It's difficult to run many of those processes at once, with a budget that has declined significantly since 2010.

"When you look at the hazards OSHA has been working on, most of them have been ones that OSHA has been working on for decades," says Peg Seminario, executive director for safety and health at the AFL-CIO. Rules on carcinogenic silica dust, for example, were listed as a priority in the mid-1990s, finally proposed in 2013 and might be finalized by 2016. "The process is so slow that there is always a huge backlog. To even take it on, they’d have to not do one of these other ones. It’s a zero-sum game."

In many circumstances, the agency has noted that it doesn't have the resources to update its rules. It has a whole Web page devoted to the chemical exposure limits it knows are obsolete, offering links to other standards that responsible companies ought to take into account.

"Basically in theory they’re putting employers on notice, that these guidelines from professional organizations aren’t legally enforceable, but this is what you need to do to protect your workers," says Ron White, director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government, who says he thinks OSHA director David Michaels has been doing his best under tough circumstances. "They have this fine line in terms of what they can say."

On Workers Memorial Day, it's worth remembering why it is that people still get hurt on the job -- and even lose their lives.