Unsafe at These Speeds – Part 1

worker_safety_squareNote: For the next few weeks, we will be taking an in-depth look at the powerful new report from Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed, Unsafe at These Speeds, that exposes the dangers poultry plants pose to workers and consumers. This post will examine the first section of the report, which focuses on the exceedingly high rate of injuries in the poultry industry.

“[N]o line shut down for a human, but it’d shut down for a bird.” – Natashia Ford, former poultry worker

One of the unfortunate features of meatpacking and poultry plants is the shockingly high rate of injuries suffered by workers. Unsafe at These Speeds provides new evidence highlighting how common injuries are to poultry workers. Oscar, a former poultry processing worker, had to fold wings fast enough to meet the quota of 40 chicken wings per minute, or roughly 18,000 wings per day. Significant pain in his hands and wrists soon developed into serious tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. When Oscar’s injuries no longer made him “useful,” the company fired him.

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

Oscar’s story of chronic and life-altering pain was common among those surveyed — 72 percent of workers reported suffering a work-related injury or illness, and 66 percent described suffering from crippling “hand or wrist pain, swelling, numbness, and inability to close their hands.” All of these are symptoms that point to repetitive motion musculoskeletal disorders, an injury that is not monitored by OSHA. Furthermore, the rate of crippling injuries was higher for those workers whose jobs are directly affected by the speed of the line.

Line speed is a factor that workers have repeatedly singled out as the biggest issue that plagues them at the workplace. Of the workers surveyed, 78 percent stated that “line speed makes them feel less safe, makes their work more painful, and causes more injuries.”

Reported instances of supervisors slowing down the line were rare. In fact, some workers revealed instances of supervisors speeding up the line, firing workers, or threatening them when asked to slow the line down. In addition to crippling musculoskeletal injuries, the report noted that nearly 20 percent of workers said they suffered cut and gash injuries that required medical attention. The risk for these injuries increase when line speeds are excruciatingly fast.

Official injury rates undercount the true injury rates in meat and poultry plants, and this new report reveals worker injury rates far higher than the official rates reported to OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Injury rates are underreported in official statistics due to a variety of factors, including a worker’s fear of being fired for reporting injury to a supervisor. One study cited by the report showed that in 2009, BLS data on worker injuries “missed between 33 and 69% of all workplace injuries.” There is also little incentive for employers to accurately report injuries.  In fact, there is an incentive to underreport injuries because doing so can preserve low workers’ compensation premiums and help avoid OSHA inspections.

Natashia Ford

Natashia Ford, a former poultry plant worker in Alabama, developed lung disease and chronic knee and back pain from the dangerous conditions in her plant.

Unsafe at These Speeds calls attention to the story of Natashia Ford, who worked in a poultry plant in Alabama for six years, deboning chickens at intense speeds. A healthy person before she started working at the plant, she developed a lung disease that was caused by breathing airborne spores at the plant. Today, Natashia wears knee and back braces, and walks with a cane. She is unable to stand for longer than 15 minutes and the intense pain in her body prevents her husband from holding her at night. She discussed the harsh conditions she faced working on the line:

“The processing line never slowed or stopped for them, she said. It didn’t matter if they were cut, hurt or sick. It didn’t matter if a worker’s muscles stiffened and locked from standing and repeating the same motion for hours. The machinery kept churning – even when Natashia was so sick she had to be picked up and carried off…[n]o line shut down for a human but it’d shut down for a bird.”

To read more about Natashia’s story and the full report, click here.

To take action on this issue, help stop a pending USDA proposal to increase line speeds in poultry processing. Call your members of Congress and ask them to stop the USDA’s new poultry rule: ⅓ of a second per chicken isn’t enough to keep food and workers safe.  Calling either number (the local or the D.C. office) is fine!

  • Sen. Mike Johanns (202) 224-4224 or (402) 476-1400
  • Sen. Deb Fischer (202) 224-6551 or (402) 441-4600
  • Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (202) 225-4806 or (402) 438-1598
  • Rep. Lee Terry (202) 225-4155 or (402) 397-9944
  • Rep. Adrian Smith (202) 225-6435 or (308) 384-3900

Click here to learn more on taking action to stop this dangerous poultry rule.

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