Nearly 50 billion pounds of chicken (about eight billion chickens’ worth, or 37 billion pounds of poultry products) were processed in the United States in 2012 by about half a million workers, many of whom handle more than 100 birds per minute. This labor involves standing in chilled processing plant facilities, cutting, gutting, scalding, defeathering and hanging birds as they speed by on automated machinery, often at more than one bird per second. According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), since 1975,workers in this industry have consistently suffered injuries at a rate more than twice the national average. Machine injuries, slips, falls, and exposure to pathogens, irritating chemicals and other hazards are all concerns. But what plagues poultry- and meat-processing plant workers the most, say these workers and their advocates in a petition just submitted to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and OSHA, are “severe and crippling muscoskeletal disorders, including cuts and amputations, all of which affect meatpacking and poultry workers at alarming rates.”

In hopes of improving occupational health and safety for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who work in US poultry plants, 15 organizations – among them the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Farmworker Advocacy Network, along with labor advocacy groups based in Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska and North Carolina – have filed a petition with USDA and OSHA asking that a mandatory safety standard be established to allow the agencies to slow processing line speeds and specifically regulate this work’s safety. OSHA currently has no standards that apply expressly to meat and poultry processing – work that presents many hazards not precisely encountered in other industries. There is, say the groups, “a compelling need for a standard that properly regulates the dangerously high work speeds in meatpacking and poultry plants” that is resulting in “crippling and debilitating injuries.”

Speeding up the process

If a rule proposed by USDA and supported by the poultry industry is finalized and goes into effect, the speed at which chickens and other poultry are typically processed could increase to as much as 175 birds per minute – a rate at which some plants are already operating. “At this speed, in an eight hour shift, some 80,000 birds would be processed,” explains Food & Water Watch senior lobbyist and food safety expert Tony Corbo. The increased line speed, say labor and human rights advocates and plant workers, would increase the risk of occupational injury in plants that can often require as many as a 100,000 motions per worker in a single shift.

The US is currently the world’s largest chicken producer, with about $45 billion in annual sales. Between 15 and 20 percent of the chicken gets exported but the rest is consumed by Americans who reportedly eat more than 80 pounds per capita annually. Most workers in the industry earn no more than $25,000 a year. Poultry industry associations say they need the increased speeds to remain competitive.

The proposed USDA rule would change the way poultry processing plant inspections work. It would shift the inspection process to one in which individual companies set inspection guidelines for their own plants. Under the proposed scheme, the number of inspectors would b reduced to one at the end of the line and one off line. The National Chicken Council and National Poultry & Egg Association say the proposal is “science based” and an improvement on current inspection methods. Food safety and occupational health and labor rights advocates say the USDA proposal will not improve food safety and will increase risks for workers. With reduced inspection points and increased speeds, visual defects and contamination (that includes animal feces) will get overlooked, says Corbo. The rule will also not require testing for Salmonella or Campylbacter, pathogens that frequently infect poultry, explains Center for Progressive Reform senior policy analyst Matt Schudtz. At a rate of 175 birds per minute, only 80 birds a day would likely be inspected under the USDA’s proposal, says Corbo.

The National Chicken Council and National Poultry & Egg Association claim such high-speed processing is safe. A pilot program testing increased line speeds at several poultry plants, say the industry organizations, “demonstrates worker safety is not adversely impacted by increased line speeds. Advancements in equipment technology that allow for these line speeds, they explain, enables automation that has “significantly reduced worker injury exposure.” The industry groups also say food safety would not suffer with increased line speeds or under USDA’s proposed new inspection program that would allow companies to set inspection parameters. Citing pilot program data, they say the new inspection methods provide a better way to focus on “true food safety issues.” A US Government Accountability Office report released September 4, however, criticizes USDA for conducting less-than-thorough evaluations of the pilot-project performance, which the agency cited in proposing the poultry rule.

On a call with reporters on September 3, Franco, a 42-year old with nearly 14 years’ experience working in Alabama poultry processing plants, described his work lifting boxes of up to 90 pounds each, several a minute as they filled rapidly with chicken parts coming off the processing lines. He now suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome as well as back and waist injuries. He’s received injections in his hands to relieve the condition that his doctor says will ultimately require surgery. Franco said his hands now go numb many times throughout the day and night because of nerve damage and that he can no longer do the same kind of work that he used to. “I can’t do construction work or home repairs,” he said. The company he’s been working for, he said, hasn’t accommodated his medical requirements or provided any support for medical treatment. “This is a common problem in the industry and in my community,” said Franco.

The injuries and chronic conditions Franco and his co-workers are experiencing is documented in numerous published studies. “The data is there,” says Corbo.

Conditions in poultry plants are representative of those across the meat processing industry, explains Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attorney Tom Fritzsche. SPLC considers poultry and meat industry processing problems issues of human rights and environmental justice, as well as of labor and occupational health. A great many of the processing plant workers are recent immigrants. Many lack union or other organizational support to help them advocate for safe working conditions and medical support if they are injured. Many fear retribution for reporting unsafe conditions. Many have, over the years, been victims of wage theft, receiving less pay than they earned.

The next step for the USDA’s proposed rule will be review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). But the question remains:  How will fewer inspectors, company self-regulation and increased production speeds improve either food safety or health and safety for the poultry industry’s workers?