US Court orders slowing down of pork line speeds citing worker safety

US – A federal judge in the United States has ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s removal of processing speed limits did not adequately take worker safety into consideration and ordered the reinstatement of the speed limits.  

The federal judge has further directed the USDA to rework regulations around pork processing speeds in the next 90 days— until the end of June.

“Line speeds are a risk factor that will increase the already hazardous conditions faced by workers,” U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen wrote in the ruling.

“These risks are not merely speculative. They are supported by several academic studies, government research, and recommendations provided by [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and the [Government Accountability Office].”

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As a result of the ruling, the USDA has notified pork processors that they should prepare to process no more than 1,106 hogs an hour— the processing speed limit prior to rule revamps in 2019.

No official changes to the rule have however been published in the Federal Register or promoted on USDA’s website.

A reprieve for workers

The ruling comes as a great reprieve for workers who have been suffering since the rule eliminating line speeds was first implemented during the Trump era.

According to a survey conducted by the USDA on the impact of faster line speed on worker safety, workers had experienced challenges adopting to the faster line speeds with some reporting issues with hanging heavy carcasses on lines.

As a result of faster speeds, workers reported being prone to cutting themselves by mistake, others reported pain in shoulders and arms from faster and more repetitive motions, and and others said they inadvertently found themselves bumping into one another.

Biden administration rolls back regulations

Days after his inauguration, President Joe Biden withdrew a proposed rule that would have allowed poultry line speeds to increase by 25%.

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The Biden administration also indicated it would be reviewing the rule allowing faster line speeds at pork plants.

He cited the pandemic, social distancing protocols and health risks for workers as reasons to slow the lines down.

Meat companies protest ruling

Although the ruling is a major win for industry employees, meat trade groups are not a happy lot and would have preferred the USDA appeals the ruling.

Pork processors told The Wall Street Journal this ruling has the potential of leaving them unable to process about 80,000 hogs this year.

Since hog supplies are contracted a year in advance, they told the newspaper it could lead to more of a backlog and could also have severe consequences on hog prices.

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