Culture of Fear at Work Enables Poor Treatment of Meat Processors

Recent reports indicate that safety in meat and poultry processing plants is a concern across the United States. What’s more, workers in these industries are afraid to speak out.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently conducted a study of workplace conditions in meat and poultry processing plants. It found that plant workers across the country were victims of inhumane treatment and unsafe conditions at work—which go against the federal protections created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Workers were regularly refused bathroom breaks, resulting in many workers wearing diapers at work. Such treatment is not only illegal; it also leads to other health concerns. Workers at the plants also cited instances of exposure to chemicals that had not been analyzed for health and safety risks. Medical care at the workplace was also a noted issue.

It is OSHA’s responsibility not only to define standards of safe and healthy working conditions for American workers; it is also their responsibility to ensure that these standards are being upheld. So why have employers in these plants been able to get away with such egregious behavior?

One of the ways that OSHA ensures worker health and safety is being protected within the guidelines of the law is by conducting on-site inspections. These inspections may include interviews with the workers. In such interviews, worker anonymity is not protected. Therefore, at companies where managers create threatening work environments, employees are afraid to speak out against unfair treatment for fear of retaliation. At many meat processing plants, workers were more likely to stay silent and endure cruel treatment rather than risk losing their jobs.

The GAO has issued some recommendations to OSHA on how to conduct investigations going forward, in an effort to better identify poor working conditions. It suggests that OSHA investigators ask workers to be open about any problems they face and also to inquire point blank about bathroom access.

These are only a few things that can help protect oppressed workers. What more do you think should be done to enforce OSHA standards and defend workers?