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Seaboard Meatpacking Plant Must Address Workers’ Repetitive Motion Injuries

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 (OSHA) 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 it to make changes to consider employees’ health, according to a copy of the settlement Investigate Midwest obtained.

OSHA hasn’t cited a meatpacking plant for ergonomic issues in at least five years.

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.”

Seaboard Foods on Monday, August 9, 2021. (Photo credit: Madison McVan, Investigate Midwest)

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.”

“I was at OSHA—they cut low fines even lower if it’ll bring the company to the table.”

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 record-keeping 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 Walmart. “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.

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