OSHA Focuses on the Poultry Industry

OSHA targets Poultry Industry for closer inspection of hazardous work environments

The meat processing or protein industry has always been a harsh working environment and the work place has improved considerably since Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book the Jungle on the Chicago stockyard inspired the Meat Inspection Act. While the risks of injury from falls, cuts (amputations and lacerations) and chemical exposure are much less than Sinclair’s day, they are still high relative to other industries. Poultry industry workers for example, are 6 times more likely to get sick on the job and 2 times more likely to become injured than other private sector workers, which is especially important since chicken is now the most popular meat in America.

Chicken processing plants are operated just above freezing to inhibit bacterial growth and most plants use ammonia gas as the refrigerant. Ammonia gas is a very efficient refrigerant, but even small leaks are potentially hazardous since Ammonia has an OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) of only 25 ppm (8 hour time weighted average (TWA)).

After slaughter and evisceration, the birds are visually inspected by federal inspectors, and then chilled in a auger chiller containing either chlorine or more recently peracetic acid. These two strong oxidizing agents destroy any bacteria or other microbial contamination. Peracetic acid is gaining favor because it rapidly breaks down to leave only trace levels of acetic acid (vinegar) on the meat, thus leaving no harmful residues. Both of these chemicals are potentially harmful to workers, chlorine has a OSHA PEL of 0.5 ppm (8 hr TWA) and peracetic acid has an ACGIH threshold limit value of 0.4 ppm (15 min TWA).

Recently, OSHA has put much more focus on the poultry industry, probably in part because of the many complaints from workers and federal inspectors of over work place conditions and especially the tragic death of Jose Navarro in 2011, which was attributed to exposure to chlorine and peracetic acid. OSHA has been looking at all aspects of the work environment as the following examples illustrate.

  • December 2015 OSHA imposed fines $462,000 in penalties against Case Farms’ processing facilities in Ohio, for deficiencies in ammonia refrigeration systems at two of the company’s Ohio facilities.
  • October 2014 Wayne Farms LLC, was been cited for exposing workers to dangerous machinery, fall and musculoskeletal disorder hazards.
  • June 2015, OSHA cited Allen Harim Foods, for exposing employees on the debone line to musculoskeletal disorder hazards.
  • In August 2015, OSHA cited Case Farms Processing Inc. again, after they found that dangers of amputation, electrocution and hazardous falls were common place and the company was aware of the dangers, but continued to expose workers to serious and potentially fatal injuries.
  • In 2015 Park Ridge, Illinois-based Koch Foods Inc. was cited for five workplace safety violations after a worker lost part of his right middle finger while clearing a paper jam in April.

Some OSHA regions have even announced a plan to focus on Poultry: OSHA region 4 and (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida) region 6 (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, plus some facilities in New Mexico). OSHA is giving the industry the first three months of the program to become compliant with OSHA regulations, and then after that, OSHA will begin targeted, comprehensive safety and health inspections near the end of January 2016 and so we can expect more attention on the poultry industry over the next few years.