As a sanitation worker at a poultry processing plant, Franklin* wore a chemical safety suit to protect himself from the cleaning chemicals he sprayed on the machinery at the plant.
But the suits his employer provided tore easily – often after three or four days of use. His requests for replacement suits were repeatedly denied.
This meant Franklin had to repair the suit on his own. He would tape over the holes and tears to keep the chemicals out as he worked. He hoped his employer would eventually provide a replacement. But Franklin sometimes ended up wearing the same tattered safety suit for five months.
Franklin isn’t the only person struggling to work with broken and ragged safety equipment. Many of the workers interviewed for our survey said their companies continually switch to thinner, cheaper aprons that simply don’t hold up as they work.
“The safety scrubs rip easily, which lets chemicals and chicken waste inside and touch your skin and your clothes,” one worker said.
But asking for a new apron or safety suit isn’t an option for many. A common policy in Alabama poultry plants is to provide workers with one new protective apron to wear each month. A worker who needs a replacement before the end of the month is charged a fee. The same is true for other gear such as hair nets and gloves.
In this survey, 57 percent of respondents said they had to pay for some or all of their protective equipment (33 percent paid for replacement gear only and nearly one-quarter – 24 percent – had to pay for all equipment).
Given these statistics, it should be no surprise that workers often choose to start their workday wearing yesterday’s blood-spattered aprons and gloves rather than pay their employer for the privilege of wearing clean gear.
It’s an example of how employers discourage poultry workers from voicing concerns about hazardous or unsanitary conditions in the workplace. Sixty-eight percent of workers responding to this survey were not comfortable asking their employer to fix workplace safety hazards – a fear that seriously endangers workers in a profession that reported 300,000 injuries between 1998 and 2008.21
The majority of workers uncomfortable asking for hazards to be addressed (58 percent) also said they were afraid they might be fired for reporting a safety violation or requesting an improvement in work conditions. This reluctance was particularly high among workers who have witnessed retaliation or some adverse response to such requests.
Even without the fear of job loss, some workers may believe their request will be ignored. Only a tiny percentage of respondents (8 percent) knew of an instance when they or a co-worker asked a supervisor to improve working conditions in some way and the request was granted. This sets a dangerous precedent for workers laboring in processing plants where chemicals, blood, animal waste and other hazards abound.
The health issues workers witness within the processing plants can be disturbing. Patricia,* an indigenous woman from southern Mexico who has worked in two poultry processing plants, said she became frightened when her co-workers suddenly developed warts. The workers suspected it was caused by exposure to the “chicken water,” which can contain chemicals and waste from all over the plant.
Wilfrido, a 12-year veteran of Alabama’s poultry processing plants, has watched his co-workers’ fingernails blacken and fall off. Exposure to chemicals and other liquids apparently blackens their fingernails and causes the skin on their fingers to harden and retract from the nails, which ultimately fall off.
Behind these stories and others like them are workers coping with a variety of ailments.
The survey found that 14 percent of all participants reported skin problems, 18 percent described eye pain or vision problems, and 21 percent described respiratory problems. It found that 30 percent of sanitation workers, the workers most exposed to strong cleaning chemicals, described experiencing respiratory problems at work.
Yet, fear silences them.
Workers denied restroom breaks
This silence even extends to the most basic request: Permission for a bathroom break.
Of the 266 workers answering questions about bathroom breaks, nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) said they are not allowed to take breaks when needed.
The long-term health consequences of being unable to use the bathroom when the body needs this relief are well-documented and serious.22 But such findings do little to deter supervisors determined to keep workers on the processing line at all costs.
“You need to cut the chicken, not go to the bathroom,” was the response one worker said he got from his supervisor. This worker eventually walked off the processing line because he could wait no longer.
Workers have reported policies limiting bathroom breaks to five minutes – a period during which they must remove protective gear, leave the processing floor, return to the floor and put their protective gear back on. This leaves very little time for actual human necessities. Workers described stripping off their gear while running to the restroom, an embarrassing but necessary action to meet the strict five-minute time limit. This race to the bathroom is also dangerous because processing plant floors can be slippery with fat, blood, water, and other liquids.
Some workers said they dealt with the issue of bathroom breaks by not consuming water before and during shifts – a serious health risk. Others, fearful of losing their jobs, said they had no choice but to relieve themselves as they worked the processing line.
Dull knives, sharp pain
Even without these issues, workers on the processing line still face a painful problem – dull knives.
When Lilia asked for sharper knives, her supervisors became angry. A year after leaving the industry, her left arm still goes numb and she can’t sleep at night.
Many plants tell workers that they can have their knives sharpened when needed. This is supposed to happen in one of two ways: Either the worker is allowed to leave the line to sharpen the knife or a low-level supervisor brings a sharpened knife to the worker.
But many workers say they do not actually get to leave, slow or stop the line to sharpen their knives.
Lilia, an older Latina poultry worker, said that whenever she or her co-workers asked for sharper knives, their supervisors would get angry. They would neither allow the worker to leave the line to sharpen the knife nor sharpen a knife for them. Workers had to keep cutting as each cutting motion became more difficult and painful.
“My hand always swells a lot – and even more if I don’t have time to sharpen the knife,” said Sandra, a Latina mother of four with eight years in the industry.
A race to rest
Workers also reported being denied the opportunity to rest muscles fatigued from repeating the same motion thousands of times. OSHA recommends such breaks,25 but many workers described being permitted only two breaks in a shift – one lasting 30 minutes and another lasting 15 minutes.
But even the 30-minute break offers little time for rest. Just as workers must race to the bathroom while stripping off their gear, workers hoping to enjoy these breaks must quickly remove their gear, walk to the employee breakroom, heat their meal, eat it, use the bathroom, put their gear back on and return to the processing line. This race to “rest” is hardly a break for workers who have cut thousands of birds.
“If you come back one or two times late from a break, you get fired,” Sandra said.
Even when Sandra was pregnant, she was given only the two standard breaks to recover from the fast pace of the processing line.
OSHA guidelines often ignored
Though OSHA has recommended a series of guidelines intended to protect poultry worker health, they are unenforceable as a matter of law and often ignored in practice.26 They are only guidelines; companies that ignore them do not face any penalty or legal action.27 Indeed, among the relatively few citations issued in Alabama poultry processing plants for safety violations in the last five years, none addressed the most common hazards reported by workers in our survey, such as fast line speeds, lack of bathroom breaks, and unsafe tools and equipment such as dull knives.28
Even when Sandra was pregnant, she only received two breaks from the poultry processing line each day.
OSHA recommends that training should be provided to poultry plant workers “in a manner and language that all employees can understand,” including training on recognizing and addressing musculoskeletal disorders from their “early indications before serious injury has developed.”29
Many workers interviewed for this survey described being thrown into their assignments without any training. The survey found that 67 percent of respondents never received training before starting their job. It also found that 68 percent reported they never received any training on safety policies.
The minority of workers (33 percent) who received training when starting their jobs were more likely than workers who did not receive training to feel comfortable asking their employers about safety conditions (42 percent of trained workers versus 27 percent of untrained workers). But even 42 percent is too low when companies have a duty to ensure that all workers can freely discuss safety and health concerns. Nevertheless, this finding suggests that training has a positive effect.
OSHA also recommends job rotation, a practice that attempts to protect workers from strained muscles and tendons by regularly reassigning them to tasks that emphasize different motions.
Several workers told us that such a practice existed in their plant, which is an encouraging sign. Unfortunately, some of these workers said it had little effect because there was little variation between their previous assignment and their new assignment.
For example, when workers on a plant’s deboning line were rotated among the work stations, all of the tasks stressed similar muscle and tendon groups.
Change is possible, but rare
This isn’t to say it’s impossible for poultry workers to bring change to their workplace. Recently, workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Russellville, Ala., voted 706 to 292 to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Among the reasons cited for the unionization was employee desire to change working conditions such as not having time to take bathroom breaks and not having their injuries adequately addressed.30
But Alabama’s rate of union membership – 10 percent – has been below the national average every year since 1989, the year the Bureau of Labor Statistics started publishing the data.31 With such a low level of union representation, it’s not surprising workers don’t see many viable options to make their voices heard.
Also, Alabama poultry workers in union plants are not automatically placed in the union membership, which is a common practice in poultry-producing states.32 This means that workers may choose to not join the union out of fear of being singled out for negative treatment.
Given the few opportunities for poultry workers to improve their working conditions, it’s not surprising that workers like Sandra believe that little will change.
“Unless the company wants change, nothing will improve,” she said. “I don’t believe others can force the company to change. The company does not want to help any of the people.”
 Mary Bauer & Mónica Ramírez, Southern Poverty Law Center, Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry, at 37 (2010) (citing The Perils of Processing, The Charlotte Observer (June 25, 2010).
 Marc Linder & Ingrid Nygaard, Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks & the Right to Urinate on Company Time 47–54 (1998) (describing some studies documenting the connection between long work hours without access to bathroom breaks and several resulting health conditions, including urinary tract infections, incontinence, enlarged prostates, kidney damage, reflux, kidney stones, and others).
 OSHA, Guidelines for Poultry Processing: Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders, OSHA 3213-09N, 2004,
available at http://www.osha.gov/ergonomics/guidelines/poultryprocessing/poultryproce....
 GAO-05-96, supra note 5, at 31–32.
 OSHA, Guidelines for Poultry Processing, supra note 23.
 OSHA provides a strong disclaimer to this effect at the top of these guidelines, making it clear that employers who disregard them will not be cited or fined for doing so: “These guidelines are advisory in nature and informational in content. They are not a new standard or regulation and do not create any new OSHA duties. Under the OSH Act, the extent of an employer’s obligation to address ergonomic hazards is governed by the general duty clause. 29 U.S.C. 654(a)(1). An employer’s failure to implement the guidelines is not a violation, or evidence of a violation of the general duty clause. Furthermore, the fact that OSHA has developed this document is not evidence of an employer’s obligations under the general duty clause; the fact that a measure is recommended in this document but not adopted by an employer is not evidence of a violation of the general duty clause.” Id.
 See data obtainable from OSHA, Statistics & Data, supra note 14.
 OSHA, Guidelines for Poultry Processing, supra note 23.
 Sherhonda Allen, Pilgrim’s Pride Hourly Workers to Join Union, Florence, Ala. Times Daily, http://timesdaily.com/stories/Pilgrims-Pride-hourly-workers-to-join-unio... (June 13, 2012).
 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Membership in Alabama – 2011, http://www.bls.gov/ro4/unional.htm.
 See Ala. Code § 25-7-34.