The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will conduct a round of poultry plant inspections in the coming months, and it’s going to look closely at how well the industry is reporting, and keeping records of, workplace incidents.

In late January, the U.S. Department of Labor agency launched the inspection phase of a yearlong regional emphasis program on the safety of poultry production facilities in the country’s Southeastern and southern Midwestern states. The inspections, which will last through September 30, aim to reduce illness and injuries at the nation’s chicken production facilities.

In an interview, OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer, who has oversight over Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, said ensuring more accurate reporting and recordkeeping is “one of the primary points” of the program. He expressed some skepticism about the industry’s reporting practices.

“I would never go to say that it’s rampant or, that all of these poultry employers are all doing the wrong thing,” Petermeyer said. “But … we have cases that we’ve identified and inspections we’ve performed where we’ve identified significant deficiencies and gaps in reporting.”

Recently, activists groups such as The Southern Poverty Law Center and Oxfam America Inc. have claimed some poultry processors discourage their employees from reporting workplace-related injuries and illnesses. While the injury rates in the poultry industry have dropped dramatically in the past two decades, regulators are unsure if it’s the result of safer practices.

In an interview, Paul Pressley, executive vice president at the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, said he was surprised that Petermeyer said what he did about reporting and recordkeeping. OSHA has maintained an emphasis on incident reporting and recordkeeping, with poultry as a targeted industry, for years.

“A number of recordkeeping inspections or audits were conducted by OSHA and, to my knowledge, there was no widespread finding of any kind of under-reporting,” Pressley said. “There were certainly some errors found in properly recording an incident … but there was no indication that there was any widespread failure to record injuries.”

Pressley said poultry processing plants are, and have been, heavily inspected by OSHA. He said the agency’s own data indicates there have been been more than 600 OSHA inspections of poultry processing plants in the past five years. Those inspections didn’t show widespread under-reporting.

Pressley said the poultry industry has been working for the past 30 years to improve safety at processing plants and it has seen improvement across the board. He said there’s been an 80 percent reduction in the number of recordable injuries in the past 20 years.

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“OSHA wants to suggest that’s because we are not properly reporting or recording those injuries,” Pressley said. “We don’t agree. We just don’t see that as being a factor.”

He said the industry is not where it wants to be on worker safety, however. The work requires intensive manual labor. It’s repetitive, fast and places stress on worker’s hands and wrists and takes place in wet, cold environments due to food safety concerns. Worker safety at poultry processing plants is now comparable to all manufacturing, he said, and programs are in place to keep improving worker safety. Better job rotation, knife and scissor sharpening programs and improved automation of the processing line can help improve safety going forward.

“Personally, I don’t think there’s a need for it.” Pressley said of the current emphasis program. “However, our plants are open, they can come whenever they choose and we’re prepared. We think we’ve been doing the right thing and we’re prepared for the inspections.”

Petermeyer agreed that injury rates have declined over the years, but said there’s still significant work to be done.

“Not just with musculoskeletal disorders – carpal tunnel (syndrome) is seven times the national average – but their ergonomic injury rate is more than six times the average of all the other industries, so we’ve obviously got a problem,” Petermeyer said. “If (the producers) are in good shape, they won’t have any problem with our inspections.”

Petermeyer couldn’t provide specifics for which facilities will be inspected and when, but said all processors in his region should be prepared for a visit from OSHA. He said the agency has compiled a list of approximately 165 processing facilities which it plans on inspecting. The list of facilities in his region has been randomized and the inspection teams will head to seven facilities in each “cycle” before they move onto the next cycle. He declined to say how quickly those cycles will be completed.

The administrator declined to say if there’s any company or region OSHA will be looking at closely in this process. He said the program aims to put all processors under the microscope. OSHA can issue citations, penalties and fines but it does not have the authority to stop work at the plants.

For now, the inspections will last only through the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. As regional administrator, Petermeyer has the authority to analyze the results of the program and choose whether to extend the program or cancel it and move on. Success, he said, will be defined by improvements in safety and worker health.