How Fast is Too Fast? OSHA's Regulation of the Meat Industry's Line Speed and the Price Paid by Humans and Animals

Author:Israel Cook
Position::J.D. Candidate 2019, American University Washington College of Law.
Fall 2017
* J.D. Candidate 2019, American University Washington College of Law.
how faSt iS too faSt? oShaS regulation
of the meat inDuStryS line SpeeD anD the
price paiD by humanS anD animalS
By Israel Cook*
In 2016, the United States employed more than 491,000
workers in the meat industry,1 thereby feeding more than 318
million Americans,2 and processing over 9 billion animals
per year.3 The growth of the meat industry has placed pressure
on slaughterhouses to increase the pace of their line speeds in
order to produce more meat and satisfy consumer demand.4 Due
to the faster pace of production, workers are suffering high rates
of injury,5 and animals are being mistreated while still alive.6
The fast pace of line speeds in slaughterhouses adversely affects
worker safety and animal welfare; therefore, the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should regulate line
speed in meatpacking plants.
Dangerously fast slaughter line speeds are the leading cause
of worker injuries due to the pressure to kill more animals in
less time.7 It is estimated that every year, almost 25% of all
meatpacking employees are injured or ill, and the high speed of
production lines has increased the industry’s already abundant
amount of injuries.8 The pace of the line affects the employee’s
ability to perform tasks safely,9 making the speed of production
an important factor in the health and safety of workers.10 The
physical efforts required for sawing, cutting, slicing, lifting
thousands of animals each day is the major source of muscu-
loskeletal disorders (MSDs), which is endemic in the meat and
poultry industry.11 Workers in the meatpacking industry “have
the highest rate of MSDs, seven times the average incidence rate
in manufacturing,”12 yet the government is not required to track
the growing number of MSDs diagnosed in slaughterhouses.13
The meat industry claims that the rise of injuries related to fast-
moving line speeds is untrue, stating that workers’ injuries have
declined over the years.14 However, inspectors, often employed
by the meat industry have little incentives to investigate injuries
because the injuries could halt the line and affect production
margins.15 OSHA argues that it does not have authority over
production speeds and that MSDs cannot solely be attributed to
the fast-moving line speeds.16
Not only does the line speed affect the safety of the meat
industry employees, it signicantly contributes to discrimina-
tion of individual employees and violates workers’ rights. The
majority of laborers in the meatpacking industry are at-will
employees and are less likely to report a workplace hazard out of
fear of losing their jobs. A number of laborers in the meatpack-
ing industry are undocumented or do not speak English, making
them more vulnerable and fearful of reporting workplace haz-
ards.17 Despite the growth of meat production, slaughterhouse
workers’ wages have been rapidly declining.18 The salary of
meatpacking employees barely keeps workers above the pov-
erty line, thus affecting their access to health services as they
cannot afford proper transportation to and from doctors, much
less healthcare.19 Furthermore, many slaughterhouses oper-
ate twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, requiring
employees to work grueling hours—often without approved
time off.20 Additionally, laborers are not allowed unionize, thus
facing barriers to exercise their freedom of association.21
Consumption of animal products results in the unnecessary
suffering and death of billions of animals.22 Despite having
some regulation, like the Humane Slaughter Act, animals are
still subjected to inhumane acts of cruelty during processing.23
While some states have anti-cruelty statutes that work to prevent
this conduct, they focus on the individual violations rather than
the overall industry violations.24 The Washington Post reports
that “nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are unintention-
ally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses” due to the
increasing pace of product lines.25
Currently, line speed is regulated by the USDA based on
Food Safety standards,26 and it is only limited by federal sanita-
tion laws.27 That is, the only time the speed of the line is slowed
down is when a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
(FSIS) inspector halts the line because she or he identies an
animal carcass that appears contaminated (e.g., fecally, bruised,
and hemorrhaged).28 Otherwise, line speed can increase without
any concern for a worker’s safety.29 Under the Poultry Products
Inspection Act (PPIA) and the Federal Meat Inspection Act
(FMIA), the regulation of line speed by the USDA for sanita-
tion concerns does not preclude OSHA from regulating line
speed for worker health and safety concerns.30 Though previous
attempts by OSHA to regulate line speeds have been blocked by
Congress,31 OSHA must regulate line speed to not only ensure a
safe and healthy working condition for workers but to also curb
animal cruelty in the meatpacking industry.
Endnotes on page 63