03/07/2013

SPLC report exposes dangers faced by Alabama poultry workers

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.

But after the 47-year-old arrived in Alabama from Miami, he was asked to fold chicken wings on the production line. Oscar had to fold them fast enough to meet a quota of approximately 40 chicken wings per minute – or roughly 18,000 wings per day.

“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.”

After about a month, Oscar developed serious hand and wrist pain. He was diagnosed with tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. When his injuries made him no longer useful to the company, he was fired.

Oscar’s story is all too common within the poultry industry, according to a new report released today by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

The report – Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers – describes how poultry workers in Alabama, the nation’s third-largest poultry producer, often suffer significant injuries and illnesses as they are forced to keep up with the punishing speed of processing lines. Based on more than 300 interviews of current and former Alabama poultry workers, the report found many of these workers endure grueling, dangerous working conditions and frequent threats of deportation or firing.

These findings come as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is poised to enact new, lax regulations in April that will mean faster line speeds and, likely, more injuries. These regulations also threaten consumer safety by removing hundreds of federal inspectors from processing lines and burdening plant workers with the responsibility of identifying and removing tainted chicken.

“The hard-working people who produce our food should be protected from dangerous conditions that lead to avoidable injuries, and they should not be expected to double as food safety inspectors,” said SPLC staff attorney Tom Fritzsche, author of the report. “The current system may be profitable for the poultry companies, but it relies on systematic exploitation of workers. Now, regulators are about to make conditions even more hazardous.”

There are no set of mandatory guidelines to protect the health and safety of poultry workers. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) does not regulate line speeds or enforce safety rules tailored for the unique dangers of poultry plants. And while the USDA does limit line speeds, the agency’s regulations are designed to guard against food contamination – not to protect workers. The proposed new USDA regulation will allow poultry companies to increase the processing line speed from 140 to 175 birds per minute.

Nearly three out of four Alabama poultry workers interviewed for the report described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness, such as debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, cuts, chemical burns or respiratory problems. Workers said they are discouraged from reporting work-related injuries and forced to endure constant pain.

Kendrick developed carpal tunnel syndrome as he worked the deboning line at a plant. When he asked the nurse for a lighter work assignment, she let know there were consequences for such a request. “Do you want your job?” she asked him.

After six years in the poultry industry, Natashia Ford learned that the processing line never slowed or stopped for the workers. “The only time the plant would stop the processing line was when a bird carcass got lodged in a part of the line,” said Ford, who no longer works in the industry.

Workers are often discouraged from slowing the processing line, even when they’re hurt. But under the new USDA regulations, poultry workers, who fear they may lose their jobs for slowing the line, will be entrusted with stopping it to remove tainted chicken.

The report recommends the following:

  • The USDA should withdraw its proposed rule increasing maximum line speeds.
  • OSHA should affirmatively regulate line speeds and the number of birds per minute each worker may be required to process.
  • OSHA should issue comprehensive ergonomics regulations to reduce musculoskeletal disorders arising from repetitive motion in the poultry industry.
  • Federal and state lawmakers should enact stronger anti-retaliation protections and prohibit practices that obstruct workers’ access to medical treatment.
  • Alabama should enact a Poultry Workers Bill of Rights to protect this large sector of its workforce.

Until these reforms are enacted, poultry workers will continue to discover what workers before them have learned about the industry.

“It’s a house of pain in there,” Kendrick said.