OSHA-gate: The Story Behind the Story

OSHA-gate: The Story Behind the Story

The news headline in recent days has been the House committee hearing on the underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses. Click here.

The June 27, 2008 episode of Bill Moyers Journal gave us the story behind the story. Bill Moyers Journal questioned why injury rates have dropped at poultry plants, one of the most dangerous and grueling industries around, and why the number of OSHA inspections at such plants has gone down as well.

The storyline of the Bill Moyers Journal episode originated from the Charlotte Observer's investigative series "The Cruelest Cuts", which was published in February 2008. The newspaper's investigation in turn led to the aforementioned House Committee hearing on June 19, 2008 on the underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses.

Bill Moyers Journal interviewed the reporters at the Charlotte Observer as well as some poultry line workers. Some of the key points made were:

  • Poultry line workers make something like 20,000 cuts a day without breaks, using sharp knives and working near chemicals. They are highly prone to repetitive motion types of injuries or MSD's, musculoskeletal disorders.
  • There used to be an injury log where employers had to report all repetitive motion injuries. However, the Bush Administration in 2002 removed that column from injury logs.
  • The Bush Administration also repealed the national ergonomic standard put into place at the end of the Clinton administration.
  • Poultry plants with high injury incident rates are often targeted for OSHA inspections. 
  • If injured workers are returned to work quickly, though, the company can save money in workers' compensation costs. Furthermore, a quick return to work means that the company doesn't have to report a "lost time injury", again reducing the possibility of an OSHA inspection.
  • Some injured poultry line workers told the Charlotte Observer that after surgery for an on-the-job injury, they were told to be back to work on the next shift, even if they were in pain or feeling sick or depressed. They were allowed to sit in an office doing nothing and informed they could lose their job otherwise.
  • Many of these workers are immigrants, and some are actually undocumented workers, who fear deportation. 

So essentially OSHA is enabling employers like these poultry plants to regulate themselves or as one OSHA insider commented, "the students are grading themselves".

Some of these self-regulating poultry plants have also twisted the concept of return to work by adopting what appears to be a zero tolerance for lost time injury by forcing employees into a quick return to work under the threat of losing their jobs.

Return to work programs should benefit both the injured worker and the employer, and not just the employer and insurer at the expense of the injured worker's physical and mental well being and safety in the workplace.

But in the case of these poultry line workers, one has to wonder if "return to work or else!" is the name of the game now?