Personal Injury

Plant safety worsens after passage of workers bill of rights

The “Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights,” passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 2007 as part of an effort to improve safety conditions for workers in the meatpacking industry, has failed to make any improvement, according to a report by Workday Minnesota. A recent survey conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Program found that working conditions at meatpacking plants throughout the state actually have grown worse since the bill was passed.

Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Workers typically perform repetitive tasks, which often create repetitive-motion injuries such as carpal tunnel and tendonitis. They also lift heavy animals and work with sharp knives along a rapid production line in plants where loud noises and extreme hot and cold temperatures are normal. Workers on meatpacking lines frequently receive injuries such as cuts and lacerations. Accidental amputations occasionally occur in the plants as well.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2007, the injury rate for workers in the meatpacking industry was more than double that of the national average for workers in other manufacturing jobs.

Nearly two years after the passage of the Bill of Rights, however, almost none of the workers knew of its existence. Those who had heard of the bill didn’t know what protections it gives them.

According to researchers, “Only 20 percent of workers were able to confirm that the bill is posted in the plant, and several workers told us specifically that the bill is not posted in their native language.”

Knowledge of the bill’s existence is one reason for its failure to improve working conditions in the plants. Another reason is that no provision was made for enforcing the bill after it passed. Though the plants were expected to uphold the law, the lack of government oversight served as a free pass.

According to Workday Minnesota, more than “half of the workers surveyed had experienced or witnessed injuries in the plants, and a number of workers connected injuries directly to line speed.”

One plant employee told Workday that the work “isn’t safe because the line is very fast – twice as fast as it was last year.”

According to Workday, workers in many meatpacking plants formed unions 50 years ago in order to give themselves more leverage with company management when negotiating slower line speeds and adequate staffing.

“But as the industry became consolidated under a few large corporations, many operations were moved outside the more-unionized urban areas to non-union rural areas,” Workday explains.

“As compensation and working conditions worsened, fewer native-born Americans filled the jobs. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, more than half of workers in meatpacking plants are now immigrants.”

The trend continues today in the same direction as fewer and fewer meatpacking industry employees speak English as a native language. Even if management posted the Bill of Rights inside the plant and made it accessible to workers in English, chances are less than half of them would be able to understand it.