For 17 years, Salvadora Roman deboned chickens on the processing line at Wayne Farms in Decatur, Alabama. In particular, she deboned the left side of the chicken — a task she was expected to perform on three chickens each minute during her eight-hour shift. Because of the repetitive movement and speed of the processing line, Roman developed a chronic and painful hand injury that affects her ability to do even the most basic household chores. About three years ago, she was fired from the plant for taking time off work to visit a doctor for the injury she sustained on the line.
“My hand started to become swollen and the more that I worked, the more swollen it got,” Roman told me through a translator with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “It was stressful to see the chickens pass…I would work faster, but my hand would swell.”
So when Roman heard that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was considering a proposal to increase the maximum allowed line speed from 140 birds per minute to 175 per minute, she decided to speak out. Last week, she traveled to Washington, D.C., with advocates from SPLC to tell her story during a meeting with representatives from USDA and the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. At the meeting, SPLC advocates urged officials to reject the line speed proposal and distributed a copy of their petition calling on OSHA to regulate production line work speeds within the poultry and meatpacking industries.
“It isn’t a just thing to do,” Roman said of the proposed increase. “The lines are fast as it is.”
Yesterday, USDA officially rejected the proposed increase, keeping max speeds at 140 chickens per minute. However, worker safety advocates aren’t ready to celebrate. Basically, they say, USDA decided not to make an already bad situation any worse, which does little to prevent future injuries or support workers who are already hurt.
“We’re certainly happy that the line speed is not going to increase, but I think we’re still concerned that worker safety is not being adequately addressed,” said Michelle Lapointe, SPLC staff attorney. “We had asked OSHA to institute rulemaking on worker safety related to line speed and they haven’t done so…the line speed even at rates that they are moving now are too fast and are causing injury to workers.”
The line speed increase was part of a larger proposed rule that USDA refers to as “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection,” which includes big changes to food safety oversight as well (more on that below). Yesterday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a news conference announcing the final rule, which goes into effect immediately. Vilsack said the agency responded to worker safety concerns by refusing to increase maximum line speeds and putting in place additional requirements, such as a new 1-800 number that food safety inspectors can use to report workplace hazards directly to OSHA.
Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch, said that while USDA may have rejected the line speed increase, the final rule essentially does nothing for workers.
“It’s meaningless,” Corbo told me. “There won’t be any enforceable regulations to deal with worker safety, and injuries will still occur. …Where are the accompanying regulations to make sure injuries don’t occur in the first place?”
Plus, Corbo said, the 20 plants that were participating in piloting the new rule are exempt and can continue to run their line speeds at more than 140 birds per minute. Corbo was equally doubtful that training food inspectors to spot workplace hazards would do much good. With the rule decreasing the number of federal food safety inspectors on the processing line, how will the remaining inspectors find the time to monitor worker safety, he asked.
In “Unsafe At These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers,” SPLC and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice found that nearly three-quarters of the more than 300 current and former poultry workers interviewed reported suffering a significant work-related injury and illness. Common injuries and illnesses include debilitating hand pain, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, respiratory problems and carpal tunnel syndrome. The majority of workers surveyed attributed their injuries to the speed of the processing line. OSHA reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for workers in poultry processing plants in 2010 — a rate that was more than 50 percent higher than the national injury rate for all workers. While USDA said the final modernization rule will improve worker safety, it’ll likely do little to change a workplace culture that places little value on worker well-being. According to the report:
Workers speaking freely outside of work describe what one called a climate of fear within these plants. It’s a world where employees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor. In this report, they describe being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break. …
OSHA, which regulates the health and safety of workers in this country, has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers. Workers cannot bring a lawsuit to prevent hazardous working conditions or even to respond to an employer’s retaliation if they complain of safety hazards or other abusive working conditions. Many live in rural areas and have no other way to make a living, which means they must accept the abuse or face economic ruin.
Lapointe told me that while the poultry plants have doctors or nurses on site, she’s heard reports from many workers who say they’re just sent back out to the line with some pain relievers or an ice pack. Roman said she once spoke up about her hand injury and a supervisor’s assistant took her to the plant nurse, who put some lotion on her hand, gave her an ice pack and sent her back to the line. Roman and her co-workers were also subject to a strict attendance system, in which workers earn points for each missed work day — even a day missed due to medical reasons — and once they reach a certain number of points, they’re fired. That’s what happened to Roman, who’s paying for her own medical expenses in relation to the hand injury.
Lapointe said SPLC will continue to pressure the administration to enact better workplace protections for poultry workers. Last year, SPLC submitted a petition to OSHA urging the agency to adopt regulations to protect poultry workers, but there’s been no response.
“Americans eat a lot of chicken,” Lapointe told me. “As we become more conscious as a society about where our produce comes from and sustainability in terms of the environment, I would suggest that we also need to talk about the workers who bring it to our tables. It’s really time for us as a society to think about the workers who are being injured and whose health is suffering so that we can eat 50 pounds of chicken per person per year.”
Food safety: ‘We’re heading backwards’
The finalized poultry modernization rule also authorizes a new food safety inspection system — and it’s one that’s being roundly criticized by food safety advocates.
The new inspection system, which USDA emphasized is optional but which advocates predict most poultry plants will adopt, reduces the number of federal food safety inspectors on the processing line and hands over much of the visual inspection responsibility to the plant. The rule will also require all plants (this is not optional) to engage in more microbiological testing in addition to the testing that USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service conducts. Plants will get to choose which pathogen to test for — campylobacter or salmonella.
According to USDA, reducing the number of inspectors on the processing line will free them up for other safety duties, such as ensuring sanitation standards are met and verifying compliance with various food safety rules. During yesterday’s USDA media call, Secretary Vilsack said the new rule is an “opportunity to bring the inspection system for poultry into the 21st century.” He also said the rule could lead to 5,000 fewer food-borne illnesses every year. Corbo at Food & Water Watch vehemently disagrees.
Corbo said the new system leaves the one USDA inspector left on the slaughter line to inspect 2.33 birds every second. Under the traditional system, each inspector could only inspect 35 birds per minute, which would have required four inspectors on a line that was running at 140 birds per minute.
“Instead of having a full complement of inspectors on the slaughter lines, you’re going to have one inspector at the end of the line,” Corbo told me. “It’s essentially taking us back to when we had no inspectors at all. We’re heading backwards here. Instead of having more inspectors and giving USDA authority to actually prevent food-borne illness, it essentially turns everything over to the companies.”
Corbo noted that salmonella and campylobacter are not officially considered adulterants and so even if a carcass tests positive for the pathogens, USDA can’t legally prevent it from going to market. In June, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that would designate as adulterants certain types of campylobacter and salmonella that are antibiotic-resistant. Food & Water Watch had previously received documents via a Freedom of Information Act request on the thoroughness of inspectors employed by poultry plants, finding that regulations were not being enforced.
Corbo said Food & Water Watch is exploring all options to stop the rule, including possible litigation.
(Special thanks to Eva Cardenas at Southern Poverty Law Center for serving as a translator during the interview with Salvadora Roman.)
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.