Workers sue after US agriculture officials decide their safety doesn't matter anymore

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A new USDA rule lets companies, not the government, decide what is a safe speed for processing hogs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just finalized a rule that weakens government oversight of worker safety in pork processing plants. It's such a disastrous change that unions representing workers in those plants say they have no choice but to sue.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and several local-level unions, along with Public Citizen, filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court arguing the rule should not be allowed to take effect.

The groups argue that the USDA is outsourcing an essential function of government — ensuring the safety of workers — to the very companies that would rather put speed over safety. Under the new rule, pork processing companies can set the line speed, or how fast workers must process hogs, however they want. There would no longer be a maximum speed set by the government.

Experts told the USDA during the rulemaking process that speeding up processing could significantly increase injuries to workers in two ways.

First, they argued, workers on pork processing lines use knives. Increasing the speed of the line increases the possibility of laceration injuries to those workers. Pork processing is also physically demanding and repetitive. Faster lines, experts explained, could cause "an epidemic of disabling work-related MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders]."

Meat processing workers already have an MSD injury rate more than three times higher than in other industries.

The lawsuit also alleges that the USDA didn't follow appropriate rulemaking requirements when it issued the rule. It allegedly ignored the thousands of comments against the rule, including expert concerns about worker safety. Worse, the suit claims, the agency declared that it couldn't consider worker safety because it lacked the authority to do so.

The lawsuit says that assertion is absurd. The USDA has a long history of considering how its rules, or lack thereof, impact workplace safety. In fact, when the USDA first requested comments on this exact rule, it said it recognized that evaluating the effects of line speed on food safety "should include the effects of line speed on establishment employee safety." There's no explanation as to why the agency suddenly decided it didn't have the authority to consider that.

The pork industry has run up against the Trump administration several times this year. In April, the administration significantly weakened pork industry safety regulations and cut the number of USDA inspectors by 40%. Pig farmers have also been dealt a serious blow as a result of Donald Trump's trade war with China, with Chinese buyers cancelling orders for more than 3,000 metric tonnes of U.S. pork in May alone, according to Politico.

As the outlet noted, per USDA figures, the cancellation was the "biggest ... in more than a year."

Published with permission of The American Independent.