Every day in Alabama, thousands of people report to work at vast poultry processing plants.
Inside these frigid plants, workers stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder as chicken carcasses zip by on high-speed processing lines. Together, small teams of workers may hang, gut or slice more than 100 birds in a single minute. It’s a process they’ll repeat for eight hours or more in order to prepare birds for dinner tables and restaurants across America.
This grueling work serves as the foundation of a lucrative industry that supplies the country’s most popular meat, a protein source that Americans devour at a rate of more than 50 pounds per person every year.
Alabama produces more than 1 billion broilers per year – ranking it third among states behind Georgia and Arkansas. It’s an industry with an $8.5 billion impact on the state – generating about 75,000 jobs and 10 percent of Alabama’s economy – and one that plays a vital economic role in numerous small towns.
But it all comes at a steep price for the low-paid, hourly workers who face the relentless pressure of the mechanized processing line.
Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.
Poultry workers often endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems – tell-tale signs of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and other ailments that flourish in these plants.
The processing line that whisks birds through the plant moves at a punishing speed. Over three-quarters of workers said that the speed makes their work more dangerous. It is a predominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many of whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.
But workers speaking freely outside of work describe what one called a climate of fear within these plants. It’s a world where employees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor. In this report, they describe being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even being forced to urinate on themselves while facing the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.
The stories in this report were collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed from interviews with 302 workers currently or previously employed in Alabama’s poultry industry. These workers are among the most vulnerable in America.
OSHA, which regulates the health and safety of workers in this country, has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers. Workers cannot bring a lawsuit to prevent hazardous working conditions or even to respond to an employer’s retaliation if they complain of safety hazards or other abusive working conditions. Many live in rural areas and have no other way to make a living, which means they must accept the abuse or face economic ruin.
Making matters worse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to enact a new regulation that will actually allow poultry companies to increase the speed of the processing line – from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175. The rule is part of the agency’s overhaul of its food safety inspection program, changes that have been harshly criticized by food safety advocates. There is no state or federal line speed regulation designed specifically to protect the safety of workers who produce the food.
This is the face of the modern poultry industry in Alabama – an industry unfettered by serious regulation and blessed with a vulnerable workforce that has lacked a voice in the halls of government and has little power to effect change. This report presents survey findings and examines how flawed policy, lack of oversight and weak enforcement has allowed this exploitation to thrive. It also offers recommendations to end it.
Alabama Poultry Producers, Changing with the Times, http://www.alfafarmers.org/commodities/poultry.phtml (last accessed Aug. 31, 2012).
OSHA’s official data for 2010 list recordable nonfatal injuries and illnesses rates of 5.9% among the United States’ 225,000 poultry processing workers, and 5.8% among the nation’s 35,000 poultry and egg production workers, both of which are higher than the rates for all U.S. workers (3.8%) and for all private sector workers (3.5%). Bureau of Labor Statistics, Incidence Rates of Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses by Industry and Case Types, 2010, http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/osh/os/ostb2813.pdf; see also Bureau of Labor Statistics, Highest Incidence Rates of Total Nonfatal Occupational Illness Cases 2010, Table SNR12, October 2011, http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/osh/os/ostb2812.pdf.