Given recent reports about the safety problems at Mississippi poultry processing plants, a recent report issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center about the injuries suffered by workers in the nation’s chicken plants comes at an important moment. The report, “Unsafe at These Speeds,” discusses how workers, primarily at facilities in the southern U.S., are frequently forced to endure dreadful workplace conditions that result in injuries and illnesses. The report also discusses how new rules crafted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) could result in workers being placed in even greater harm.
The biggest problem identified in the report is the speed that workers must process each chicken that comes down the line. The pace of the average worker is unimaginably fast for most people and it puts employees at serious risk for a wide variety of injuries.
Another problem that is seen often in poultry processing plants is carpal tunnel syndrome. The cold temperatures in the plants and the repetitive motions that workers must do every day put them at much greater risk for musculo-skeletal problems and joint issues. Their awkward posture while working on the line and a total lack of ergonomic support also leads to back problems and shoulder pain. The factors combine to mean that poultry workers are 2.5 times more likely to suffer carpal tunnel issues than those that do not work in the industry.
Even more disturbing is that workers who try and get help are often victims of intimidation. Given the high prevalence of non-native-English speakers in poultry plants, employers view their workers as more vulnerable and thus more easily prevented from raising safety concerns. Workers who have tried to bring issues about safety to their bosses have been threatened and even fired which discourages other workers from reporting workplace safety concerns. Bosses emphasize the importance of maintaining the speed of production lines, even if that means working through pain.
Beyond joint and muscular problems, lung disease and other respiratory issues are common in those workers at chicken plants. Workers develop histoplasmosis from inhaling contaminated chicken bacteria. The report also discussed the horrifying reality that many workers have “chicken juice” seep into their eyes and mouths due to a lack of protective gear. The “juice” refers to the chemical runoff from all the dead birds that splash around the plants.
The report concluded by discussing recently proposed rules by the USDA which would allow chicken processing plants to increase the number of birds they are allowed to inspect and process per minute. Currently, only 140 birds are allowed to be processed each minute. The new rules would raise that number to 175. Also included in the rule change is that the number of safety inspectors per line would be decreased from four to one.
The USDA claims the new measures would save the government and the chicken industry million of dollars, but advocates for workers say it will increase the rate of injury. As things stand right now, workers are expected to spend only 1/3 of a second processing each bird, by adding more birds to the line this time will decline even further, forcing workers to work at unrealistically fast levels and increasing the probability that they will suffer serious injuries.
If you have questions about the workers’ compensation process or if you have been injured on the job and think you may need representation, please contact the Jackson workers’ compensation attorneys at Kilpatrick & Philley PLLC at (601) 856-7800.
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