One of the U.S.'s most productive pork processing plants is being forced to restructure part of its workspace to prevent the repetitive motion injuries that plague meatpacking workers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Seaboard Foods in Guymon, Oklahoma, for making its workers repeatedly lift 50-to-90-pound boxes onto conveyor belts, exposing them to possible shoulder and lower back disorders.
The citation came in December, and OSHA and Seaboard reached a settlement last week. The settlement reduced the company’s original fine, but it compels them to make changes to consider employees’ health, according to a copy of the settlement Investigate Midwest obtained.
It marks the federal agency’s first citation for ergonomic safety issues in several years.
Current and former Seaboard employees told Investigate Midwest last year that they developed injuries from the repetitive motions of their jobs. When they sought medical treatment and time off, they were often denied accommodations, punished or fired, they said.
They described an environment where they put their bodies on the line, working at top speed to meet quotas, until the physical toll of the job caught up with them.
OSHA’s investigation confirms many of the working conditions described by the employees, including high line speeds, awkward positioning, heavy lifting, unhelpful medical staff and little rest.
Seaboard Foods spokesman David Eaheart said workers’ safety is the company’s “top priority.”
Safety “is the guiding principle for decisions we make and programs we put in place,” he said. “Our plant has received worker safety awards for achieving a high level of safety performance, including a 2021 Worker Safety Award of Honor from the North American Meat Institute.”
The North American Meat Institute is the lobbying group for the meatpacking industry. During the pandemic, NAMI lobbied the federal government to loosen coronavirus mitigation measures in meatpacking plants.
OSHA hasn’t cited a meatpacking plant for ergonomic issues in at least five years.
“(Ergonomics citations) are incredibly rare,” said Debbie Berkowitz, former chief of staff and senior policy advisor at OSHA. “Yet we know that the meat industry has some of the highest rates and numbers of musculoskeletal disorders caused by working conditions of any industry.”
The settlement requires Seaboard to change how it refers employees to doctors. Seaboard must state that a doctor they refer employees to will only provide deep tissue massages and that the employees are not required to visit him.
That part of the settlement was meant to address Seaboard’s practice of pushing employees towards “company doctors” rather than their own health care providers, said Martin Rosas, the president of UFCW Local 2, who represents the Guymon workers.
OSHA also cited the company for failing to record instances in which employees received medical care beyond first aid in at least eight cases from July through September 2021.
In the settlement, OSHA withdrew the fine for the recordkeeping citation and reduced the fine for the ergonomics citation from $13,653 to $6,826. In exchange, Seaboard agreed to make several changes to an area of the plant where workers repeatedly lifted the heavy boxes from below their waists to over their shoulders.
An OSHA spokesperson said the agency ''considered the extensive safety changes Seaboard was prepared to do as part of the settlement and concluded that the settlement was in the best interest of the safety and health of workers at the plant.”
Berkowitz said lowering fines is a way to bring companies to the negotiating table.
“This is just part of the deal,” she said. “OSHA's interest is in getting this hazard abated, and this is clearly what they needed to do to get it abated. I was at OSHA — they cut low fines even lower if it'll bring the company to the table.”
The area of the plant Seaboard must renovate, referred to as the “single quantity SKU area” in the settlement, is a part of the plant where employees load boxes from a product line onto pallets, many of them destined for Wal-Mart. “SKU” stands for “stock keeping unit” and refers to the products shipped to retail stores.
The company will “redesign and reconstruct” that area of the plant, including installing elevated work platforms and hydraulic pallet lifts to eliminate bending below the waist and lifting over shoulder height, according to the settlement.
Eaheart said the company expects to finish the upgrades before the end of August.
In the meantime, the company will retrain the employees currently working in that area of the plant and implement an employee rotation program to reduce the amount of time each individual works in that section of the plant.
Seaboard’s production lines run faster than most other pork processing plants because it has implemented the New Swine Inspection System, or NSIS, which allows pork plants to operate at higher speeds than those using the USDA’s traditional food inspection system.
The OSHA citation will force the company to slow down its line speeds and return to the traditional inspection system, Rosas said.
Seaboard disagreed. Eaheart said in a statement that “NSIS protocols are separate from this settlement and we continue to operate the plant under the NSIS protocols.”
UFCW Local 2 filed the OSHA complaint that sparked the agency’s investigation. Rosas said the settlement is a “huge win for the workers.”
“We hope that the company takes it more seriously when we demand (action), and we submit complaints,” he said. “(We hope) for them to look closer before they exhaust every resource not to comply. They know now that we’re not playing games.”
Ergonomic OSHA inspections are rare, and citations are even rarer
Repetitive motion injuries are common in meatpacking plants. Beef and pork processing employees suffered these kinds of injuries seven times more often than workers at other private industries, Harvest Public Media has reported.
Despite this, ergonomic citations remain uncommon.
The most recent citations for ergonomic issues in meatpacking plants occurred at the end of President Barack Obama’s time in office, as part of an initiative by his administration to emphasize preventing repetitive motion injuries, according to a report by labor union AFL-CIO. In fiscal year 2016, OSHA issued 13 citations for ergonomic issues, six of them to poultry plants.
During President Donald Trump’s term, OSHA investigations of ergonomic issues decreased by about 55%, according to OSHA data compiled by the AFL-CIO. Ergonomic inspections make up a small percentage of the agency’s inspections. Only 14 out of more than 24,000 inspections focused on ergonomics in fiscal year 2021, which may have been impacted by the pandemic.
There is no OSHA safety standard for ergonomics. Towards the end of his second term, former President Bill Clinton’s administration issued a rule that would define standards for workplace ergonomics. Congress repealed it two months after President George W. Bush took office. Since then, OSHA has used its catch-all “general duty clause” to cite ergonomic safety issues.
Under the general duty clause, OSHA has to prove that the employer failed to protect employees from a recognized hazard, that the hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm, and that there was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
This means the agency’s investigations of ergonomic issues are more time- and resource-consuming than inspections of workplace hazards with clear, defined safety standards, Berkowitz said. Additionally, OSHA inspectors need training in ergonomics in order to perform these investigations.
In Seaboard’s case, the investigation took six months. It was the first ergonomics citation under the Biden administration.
At the end of Trump’s term, the agency only employed one ergonomist, Berkowitz said. And, in 2020, OSHA employed fewer inspectors than at any point since the agency’s inception in the 1970s. Its ranks have increased slightly since then.
Documents confirm employee accounts
While the OSHA settlement focused on one part of the plant, it’s not the only area workers have reported having issues.
In addition to the citations, OSHA sent two hazard alert letters to Seaboard in December 2021: one for ergonomic issues and one for management of medical records. OSHA sends employers hazard alert letters to point out potentially dangerous conditions and encourage change without issuing a fine or citation.
The ergonomics hazard alert letter points out ergonomic issues in additional areas of the plant where employees used awkward postures, forceful hand grips, high rates of repetition and little rest.
One former Seaboard employee worked between two conveyor belts, with a table bumping up against his lower back. He developed a fractured vertebrae and elbow contusion from constantly tossing pieces of pork from the conveyor in front of him to the one behind him.
When he reported his pain at the nurse’s station, the nurse gave him ice and painkillers and sent him back to the line. Later, when he missed time due to his back pain, the company fired him, he said.
Another employee told Investigate Midwest that he often couldn’t close his hands because of swelling caused by the metal hook and knife he constantly used during his shifts. He routinely took 10 ibuprofen before each shift.
In another area, workers had problems with hog carcasses falling from the hooks they were on. One carcass fell on an employee while he was bending over. He injured his neck, spine and leg, according to workers’ compensation filings.
Falling carcasses have been a consistent problem, according to internal USDA paperwork obtained by Investigate Midwest through a records request. In early 2020, USDA inspectors noted the issue of falling carcasses had improved to only “8-10 hogs per shift.”
OSHA drops fine for failure to report employee medical treatment
In the second hazard alert letter, inspectors identified deficiencies in medical services at Seaboard, including recordkeeping of injuries, medical staff training, written policies and employee hesitancy to report injuries due to poor medical practices and follow-up.
With regards to medical management, OSHA only fined the company for the recordkeeping issues. But in the settlement process, the agency dropped the fine.
“During discussions, Seaboard Foods presented information that it had not failed to record instances of medical treatment beyond first aid,” Eaheart, of Seaboard, said.
Rosas, with UFCW 2, said that part of the reason OSHA withdrew the citation was due to poor tracking of injuries and monitoring of injured workers, especially at a plant with high turnover and the number of temporary foreign workers on H2-B visas, who could be more reluctant to report injuries.
For example, Rosas said, UFCW Local 2 had a hard time tracking down specific instances in which employees visited the nurse but the injury wasn’t documented on an OSHA form. This was in part because of missing documentation in the nurse’s station and also because that employee may have left their job — or even the country — by the time the union followed up.
In 2020, more than 1,000 Seaboard employees contracted coronavirus and several died. But in workplace safety data the company reported to OSHA, Seaboard only reported three respiratory illnesses to the agency.
Rosas said the union will be working with Seaboard to add more signage in the plant about reporting injuries and improve documentation of medical conditions.
Berkowitz cautioned against reading into the Seaboard citation that OSHA will be enforcing ergonomic safety more frequently in the future. But she’s hoping it’s a start.
“All these jobs where you're lifting heavy weights, and you're doing it repetitively, are going to hurt people,” she said. “A worker should not go to work and be injured and lose the ability to earn a paycheck.”
Top image: Seaboard Foods on Monday, August 9, 2021. photo by Madison McVan, Investigate Midwest