Injuries and Illnesses Extremely Common

When Oscar heard that a poultry processing plant in Alabama was looking for workers, he thought he could apply the skills he learned from studying mechanical engineering in Cuba. “I thought maybe … that I could work with the machinery, given my abilities and my hands,” he said.

But after the 47-year-old arrived in Alabama from Miami, his hopes were dashed. He was denied two positions where he could apply his mechanical skills and instead was asked to fold chicken wings on the production line.

As bird carcasses sped by him on the line, Oscar had to grab the wings and twist them into the position the company wanted, folding fast enough to meet a quota of approximately 40 chicken wings per minute – or roughly 18,000 wings per day.


Oscar developed serious wrist and hand pain while working in a poultry plant. He was diagnosed with tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome – common injuries among poultry workers. He was fired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I did my job well,” he said. “But little did I know I was harming myself in the process. They don’t warn you that this can happen.”

As he repeated this motion thousands of times, it put pressure on his hands and wrists. After about a month, he developed serious hand and wrist pain, which he had never experienced before starting work at the plant. Oscar was diagnosed with tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. When his injuries made him no longer useful to the company, he was fired.

“They don’t tell you the part that if you become sick, they’ll fire you from the job,” he said.

Oscar’s story is all too common within the poultry processing industry.

Seventy-two percent of the participants in this survey of 302 current and former poultry workers in Alabama described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness while working in the industry.

The injury rates found in this survey – and in other studies that relied on direct contact with workers – dwarf the official reported rates compiled by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), partly because of OSHA’s narrow standard for recording injuries.3 But even the OSHA data show that poultry workers are still much more likely to be hurt on the job than workers in the private workforce as a whole: 5.9 percent versus 3.5 percent in 2010.4

Consistent with the results of this survey, many medical studies have found high rates of injuries among poultry workers, especially repetitive motion and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as carpal tunnel syndrome, where muscles or tendons develop chronic pain, swelling and numbness from overuse and the repetition of strenuous cutting, hanging and other motions.5

Two-thirds (66 percent) of the workers interviewed in this survey described suffering from hand or wrist pain, swelling, numbness or an inability to close their hands – symptoms of long-term repetitive motion-related musculoskeletal disorders.

This rate was even higher among workers doing the jobs most affected by the speed of the processing line – jobs that require workers to repeat strenuous motions thousands of times a day. Workers in these jobs who described such pain included:
• 86 percent of workers cutting wings;
• 80 percent of workers deboning chicken carcasses;
• 76 percent of workers doing deboning, cutting and trimming jobs; and
• 74 percent of workers doing hanging jobs.

Musculoskeletal injuries and disorders extend beyond the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome and other hand and wrist pain. About one-third of the workers surveyed identified pain or injuries to their back, shoulder or arm.

Processing line speeds blamed
The workers in our survey attribute much of their pain and injuries to the speed of the processing line; 78 percent of workers surveyed said that the line speed makes them feel less safe, makes their work more painful and causes more injuries.6 Few of these workers knew of instances where the line was slowed to address such concerns.

Some workers recalled incidents in which other workers were fired or threatened for asking to slow the line (8 percent), and some (12 percent) said that supervisors actually sped up the line when workers asked to slow it down.

Though many plants have a lever, button or string that workers can use to stop the line during an emergency, several workers reported being disciplined for stopping it when they were injured. Carlos, a 43-year-old Latino charged with deboning meat and removing chicken skin, stopped his line once when he was in excruciating pain. His supervisor threatened to fire him if he ever did it again.

That kind of message is not lost on workers. When workers were asked if they had any opportunity to influence the line speed, the answer was a resounding no; nearly 99 percent said they could not.

This response also explains the desperation they feel. One worker described how line speeds became so fast that workers began jamming chicken bones into the machinery to stop the processing line. It was the only way they could get some relief from the frantic pace.

OSHA dedicated years of study to ergonomic risk factors and found that employers could take important steps to protect workers from musculoskeletal issues “by reducing the amount of time the employee performs repetitive motions, by reducing the speed at which the employer performs the tasks, or by eliminating certain repetitive tasks during recovery.”7

Ergonomics programs have been effective in reducing risk, decreasing exposure and protecting workers against work-related MSDs.8 Unfortunately, few poultry workers find such programs in their workplace. In 2001, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, OSHA issued ergonomics regulations aimed at protecting workers from MSDs. But those standards were repealed by Congress early the next year.

Workers suffer cuts and gashes
The fast speed of the processing line also increases the risk of cuts and gashes for workers handling knives, scissors and saws. These workers often stand virtually shoulder-to-shoulder, putting them at risk of cutting not only themselves, but co-workers as well.

This survey found that 17 percent of workers performing deboning, cutting and trimming jobs had suffered a cut serious enough to require some medical attention. Company nurses often just gave workers Band-Aids for lacerations and sent them back to the processing line.

One worker said that after such an experience, the “chicken water” – water that is on the bird carcasses and found throughout the processing plants – would get into his bandage, keeping his cuts wet and eventually dislodging his bandage as he worked. His cuts became infected and continued to bleed weeks after his initial injury.

Other workers also relayed stories that show they are expected to suffer in silence.

“These jobs were very repetitive,” said Carlos, who cut chicken wings and breasts. “My hands swelled up and were extremely painful. When I was in so much pain that I had to stop, I asked for breaks, but the company told me I had to keep working. Because of the pressure to work fast, I can’t use my arms, wrists and hands the way I could before I worked in the poultry plant.”

Carlos eventually quit his job.

“I was afraid that I would lose my hands completely,” he said. “I am 43 years old. I have four kids, and I have to support a family. And the only thing I know how to do for work is with my hands. And I can barely use them now.”

Invisible Injuries
It’s difficult to determine the real number of injuries in the poultry industry because data compiled by OSHA often underreports the frequency and severity of injuries and illnesses in all workplaces.

One study suggests that Bureau of Labor Statistics data on workplace injuries, which is based on employer reports to OSHA, missed between 33 percent and 69 percent of all workplace injuries in 2009 and that undercounting is likely an ongoing problem.9

Employers are supposed to log worker injuries on a Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illness (Form 300), also known as OSHA 300 logs. They are instructed to include work-related injuries and illnesses that result in death, loss of consciousness, days away from work, restricted work activity or job transfer, or medical treatment beyond first aid. They also must include any work-related injuries and illnesses that are significant10 or meet any of OSHA’s additional criteria.


Workers like Gabriela find their employers have incentives to underreport injuries to OSHA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Such injuries are often omitted, whether accidentally or intentionally, by employers.11 This underreporting on OSHA 300 logs is due in part to worker fear of retaliation.12

This survey found that 66 percent of participants believed workers were scared or reluctant to report injuries, and that 78 percent of respondents attributed this reluctance to fear of being fired.

Other studies have noted that employers have incentives to underreport workplace injuries. This practice can keep workers’ compensation insurance premiums low, avoid triggering OSHA inspections, and promote an image as a safe workplace in order to avoid paying the higher wages workers might demand for hazardous work.13 Many workers interviewed in this survey said they were required to work even when seriously hurt – a tactic that can help an employer keep the number of reportable lost-time injuries low.

On top of these incentives for companies to underreport injuries, there is little incentive to report them accurately. Among the 20 inspections of Alabama poultry processing plants conducted by OSHA since October 2007, six plants were cited a total of 16 times for recordkeeping violations, but 10 of these citations were either deleted or the fines for the citations were reduced to zero.14

These factors render many of the injuries experienced by poultry workers invisible – at least in terms of official injury records. Even worse, musculoskeletal injuries, which plague workers in this industry, aren’t tracked by OSHA. The agency doesn’t even have a check box on the OSHA 300 injury logs to indicate a musculoskeletal injury.15


 

[3] OSHA’s official data for 2010 list recordable nonfatal injury and illness 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. In addition to injuries, occupational illnesses are also more common among poultry processing workers than for the workforce as a whole. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported total nonfatal occupational illnesses among poultry processing workers in 2010 of 133.6 per 10,000 full-time workers, compared to only 21 per 10,000 workers across all industries. 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. 

[4] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Workplace Injury and Illness Summary, Oct. 20, 2011, available at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/osh.nr0.htm.

[5] E.g., Mark R. Schulz, et al., Upper Body Musculoskeletal Symptoms of Latino Poultry Processing Workers and a Comparison Group of Latino Manual Workers, Am. Journal of Indus. Medicine 1–9 (July 2012); Michael S. Cartwright, et al., The Prevalence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in Latino Poultry-Processing Workers and Other Latino Manual Workers, 54 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 198–201 (Feb. 2012); Antonio J. Marín, et al., Evidence of Organizational Injustice in Poultry Processing Plants: Possible Effects on Occupational Health and Safety Among Latino Workers in North Carolina, 52 Am. Journal of Indus. Medicine 37, 38 (2009); Nebraska Appleseed, The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers 26–30 (2009), available at http://www.neappleseed.org/docs/the_speed_kills_you_ne_appleseed_100709.... Series by Peter St. Onge, Franco Ordoñez, Kerry Hall & Ames Alexander, “The Cruelest Cuts: The Human Cost of Bringing Poultry to Your Table,” Charlotte Observer (2008), available at http://www.charlotteobserver.com/poultry/; Sara A. Quandt, et al., Illnesses and Injuries Reported by Latino Poultry Workers in Western North Carolina, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 49:343-351 (2006); Human Rights Watch, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants, (Jan. 25, 2005), available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/01/24/blood-sweat-and-fear; U.S. Government Accountability Office, Workplace Safety and Health: Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry, GAO-05-96 (January 12, 2005), available at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-05-96; William G. Whittaker, Labor Practices in the Meat Packing and Poultry Processing Industry: An Overview, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress at 46–48 (July 20, 2005); Wendi A. Latko, et al., Cross-Sectional Study of the Relationship Between Repetitive Work and the Prevalence of Upper Limb Musculoskeletal Disorders, 36 Am. Journal of Indus. Medicine 248-259 (1999); Eric Bates, “The Kill Line,” Southern Exposure, at 225 (Fall 1991); Thomas Armstrong, et al., Investigation of Cumulative Trauma Disorders in a Poultry Processing Plant, 43(2) Am. Indus. Hygiene Ass’n J. 103–116 (Feb. 1982).

 [6] Many studies have found correlations between rates of repetition of a task and development of musculoskeletal disorders and cumulative trauma injuries. See, e.g., Schulz, supra note 5; GAO-05-96, supra note 5; Latko, supra note 5; Poul Frost, et al., Occurrence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome among Slaughterhouse Workers, 24 Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, & Health 285 (1998); Nat’l Inst. for Occupational Safety & Health, Musculoskeletal Disorders & Workplace Factors: A Critical Review of Epidemiological Evidence for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity, & Low Back, NIOSH No. 97-141 (1997), available at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/97-141/.

[7] Ergonomics Program: Proposed Rule, 64 Fed. Reg. 65,767, 65,846 (Nov. 23, 1999).

[8] Id. at 65769–70.

[9] J. Paul Leigh, et al., An Estimate of the U.S. Government’s Undercount of Nonfatal Occupational Injuries, 46 Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine 1, 16 (Jan. 2004). Other studies have similarly found that BLS data may miss significant numbers of injuries because it only relies on samples from employers rather than on multi-source medical data. See Bruce Rolfsen, Two-Thirds of Michigan Burn Cases Not Counted in BLS Survey, Study Finds, 42 O.S.H. Rep. 512 (BNA), June 7, 2012.

[10] “Significant” is defined by OSHA as any injury or illness that is diagnosed by a physician or other licensed health care professional. 29 C.F.R. § 1904.7. Employers must record any work-related injuries involving chronic irreversible disease, a fractured or cracked bone. Id.

[11] U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Workplace Safety and Health: Enhancing OSHA’s Records Audit Process Could Improve the Accuracy of Worker Injury and Illness Data, GAO-10-10 (Oct., 2009), available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d1010.pdf. 

[12] See, e.g., id. at “What GAO Found.” “According to stakeholders interviewed and the occupational health practitioners GAO surveyed, many factors affect the accuracy of employers’ injury and illness data, including disincentives that may discourage workers from reporting work-related injuries and illnesses to their employers and disincentives that may discourage employers from recording them.” Id.

[13] See, e.g., Leigh, supra note 9, at 11.

[14] Some OSHA inspection data is publicly available and may be searched using various criteria. See OSHA, Statistics & Data, http://www.osha.gov/oshstats/index.html. The SPLC reviewed inspection data for Alabama poultry processing plants from October 2007 through October 2012.

[15] See Occupational Injury and Illness Recording and Reporting Requirements: Notice of Limited Reopening of Rulemaking Record, 76 Fed. Reg. 28,383, 28,384 (May 17, 2011) (to be codified at 29 C.F.R. pt. 1904).