Does OSHA Regulate Ergonomic Hazards?

By Roy Maurer November 5, 2014

A recent enforcement action against a poultry plant to the tune of $14,000 should serve as a reminder that yes, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does indeed cite employers for ergonomic hazards.

In the absence of an ergonomics standard, the agency issues citations under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which guarantees employees a workplace that is free from recognized hazards.

OSHA cited Wayne Farms LLC, one of the largest poultry producers in the U.S., for allegedly exposing workers to ergonomic hazards at its poultry-processing plant in Jack, Ala. The plant was dealt two serious general duty clause citations for musculoskeletal disorder hazards: one for subjecting employees on the deboning line to “prolonged, repetitive, forceful tasks, often while using awkward postures,” and another for exposing employees to the stressors of repetitive lifting and carrying of “totes filled with chicken” that can weigh in excess of 75 pounds.

“Our investigation revealed that employees suffered musculoskeletal injuries, and Wayne Farms failed to record those injuries and properly manage the medical treatment of injured employees at the facility,” said Joseph Roesler, OSHA’s area director in Mobile, Ala. The company was also fined for failing to record those injuries on OSHA’s Form 300, as required. OSHA said workers at the plant were often told to see the company’s offsite nurse multiple times before being referred to a physician. “By failing to report injuries, failing to refer employees to physicians and discouraging employees from seeking medical treatment, Wayne Farms effectively concealed the extent to which these poultry-plant workers were suffering work-related injuries and illnesses,” said Roesler.

Wayne Farms was fined an additional $88,600 for serious and repeat violations addressing slippery floors and unguarded machinery. The investigation was prompted by a complaint from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

“The outcome of this investigation deepened our concern about musculoskeletal hazards in poultry plants, where employees are at increased risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome and other disorders that affect the nerves, muscles and tendons,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels, in a news statement. “These types of injuries are preventable by implementing appropriate engineering and administrative controls in the workplace, and when they occur, they must be treated early with appropriate medical care to prevent the illness from progressing.”

Wayne Farms issued a statement saying the company is contesting several of the citations while also investigating the allegations to determine their veracity.

“The company noted that in some cases, the OSHA citation language describes situations and alleged violations in vague, general terms that are hard to address or investigate, while others specifically called out problem areas the company has either already addressed or that were in fact not violations of any specific regulation or safety protocol,” the statement read.

Policing the Poultry Industry

It had been over 10 years since OSHA used the general duty clause to cite a poultry plant for ergonomic hazards, but the action against Wayne Farms does follow a series of recent developments concerning the safety of poultry-line workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the incidence rates of occupational illness cases reported in the poultry industry in 2011 and 2012 was more than five times the average for all U.S. industries. The incidence rate of carpal tunnel syndrome for poultry workers was more than three times the national average in 2012 and seven times the national average in 2011. Poultry industry employers were also more than three times more likely in 2012 and almost six times more likely in 2011 to identify repetitive motion as a cause of serious injury, compared to employers in all industries.

Awareness of the dangers of poultry-processing work grew in 2013 after the Southern Poverty Law Center produced a report based on interviews with 300 workers in Alabama. Seventy-two percent of the workers said they suffered a significant job-related injury or illness, with 66 percent describing repetitive motion-related symptoms in their hands or wrists. Most of the workers interviewed said they were reluctant to report injuries for fear of losing their jobs.

The National Chicken Council disputed the report’s findings.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a much-debated final rule in July 2014, reducing the number of poultry-line USDA inspectors by 75 percent, leading safety advocates to charge that fewer inspectors would mean less enforcement of safety regulations and calling on OSHA to focus on the industry.

The agency answered that call one month later when it updated its guidelines on the prevention of musculoskeletal injuries in poultry processing.

In the guidance, OSHA recommends a worker protection process that includes strong management commitment, employee involvement, effective training, a surveillance program for injuries and illnesses, accurate injury and illness recordkeeping, encouraging early reporting of symptoms, and implementing effective ergonomic solutions such as engineering changes to workstations and equipment, administrative actions, work practices, and using personal protective equipment.

OSHA stressed the importance of early reporting to diagnose and treat injuries that occur in poultry plants before they lead to debilitating injury. “Employers should consider a musculoskeletal disorder to be work-related if an event or exposure in the work environment either caused or contributed to the disorder, or significantly aggravated a pre-existing disorder, as required by OSHA’s recordkeeping rule,” the agency said.

What’s Next?

Despite OSHA’s responsibility to ensure worker safety, it currently has no standards tailored specifically for poultry line workers. “Its most notable effort, hailed by labor leaders as one of the agency’s most important worker safety initiatives ever, was defeated by business interests and a Republican Congress in 2001,” said Tom Fritzsche, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

OSHA’s sweeping ergonomics standard, issued in November 2000, was blocked in court before being repealed in early 2001. “OSHA needs a rule that addresses work speed [on the poultry line] in a comprehensive way,” said Matthew Shudtz, senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform. “In the meantime, I expect OSHA to use what it learned at this Wayne Farms plant, and what poultry workers are telling them is happening across the country, to develop and implement a National Emphasis Program for the industry.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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