Let me tell you a story of a how a simple sticker can be used to send a message that could literally safe lives and limbs. Eight months ago, it was a cold and snowy January weekend in Iowa when a group of immigrants and refugees from around the Midwest gathered to talk about issues of workplace safety and share ideas on how to resolve them. Already, these workers and community leaders had been pressuring meat and poultry plant employers to make their processing plants safer for workers and consumers. However, this had been difficult and conditions had improved little.
The worker leaders are part of health action councils that have been evolving over three years and been meeting regularly with organizers from the Center for New Community. After years of hard work to identify and address these issues, the leaders were ready for change.
Workers in meat processing plants come from diverse backgrounds, but they face the same hardships: dangerous jobs in unsafe working conditions. Many workers complain that they are not given adequate bathroom breaks, and are forced to urinate themselves. Not only is this humiliating and unjust, it is also a sanitation issue. Even workers who take steps to notify management of health problems are ignored. For example, there is a man who has health issues that requires him to use the bathroom more frequently than others. He works on a line where workers are cutting chunks of meat at fast rate and when he tells the supervisor that he needs to go to the bathroom, he often has to wait over an hour before he can go.
For so long these big food corporations have put an emphasis on production over everything else. This is wrong and unnecessary; we can have both good production and adequate working conditions for all workers. Many of the immigrants and refugees who work in these plants don’t know how to navigate U.S. labor laws and legal systems. According to the workers, company officials often talk about safety, but when it’s time to take action they make excuses. No one seems to be responsible for the safety of anyone else, even in the most dangerous workplaces in America
One way that the workers meeting last January decided to combat these issues and raise awareness of health and safety, was to develop a hard hat decal that says “Safety First” in English, Spanish and Somali. They have debuted at plants in Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota so far.
Workers have made clear that whether it takes 1,000 decals or no decals, the issue of safety and health of all workers is their first priority. “Safety First,” it’s time food processors got the message.