New Report Reveals Human Toll of Relentless Line Speeds in Poultry Plants, as USDA Prepares to Crank Them Up Even Further

Michael Patoka

March 8, 2013

A report released yesterday by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice offers a devastating glimpse into the world of Alabama poultry workers.  Forced to hang, fold, gut, or slice more than 100 carcasses each minute, these workers suffer injuries at astounding rates:  of the 302 workers interviewed, almost three-quarters have experienced a significant work-related injury or illness, from deep cuts and debilitating hand pain to chemical burns and respiratory problems.  More than anything, these injuries are a result of the punishing line speeds that workers have to keep up with—lines that never slow or stop when a worker is in pain, but only when a piece of chicken becomes lodged in the machinery.

Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers is a sobering report, especially since it comes at a time when the Department of Agriculture (USDA) is preparing to finalize a proposed rule that would allow poultry plants to raise line speeds to a staggering 175 birds per minute (up from current limits of 70-140 birds per minute) and would leave only one federal inspector on each line.  In other words, workers would have only one-third of a second to spend on each carcass, and the inspection duties previously handled by USDA inspectors would be turned over to company employees.  As disturbing as that looks on paper, the real-world implications are even worse in light of the working conditions described in this report.

The new report describes how the relentless pace of the processing line creates a frenzied work environment that affects every aspect of the job.  Not only do workers face greater injuries from performing their tasks, they are also denied necessary breaks as supervisors insist that they stay on the speeding line.  Some literally run to the bathroom on slippery blood-streaked floors, racing back to the line to avoid getting in trouble.  Because workers are not given the time to sharpen their knives, they are made to use dull knives, which require them to strain their muscles even harder to cut through meat and bone.

Constant threats of deportation and firing have created a culture of fear that prevents workers from requesting lower line speeds, reporting injuries, or even seeking medical attention, the report shows.  Company nurses suggest ineffective remedies, like Band-Aids or warm-water hand washes, and return workers right back to the line without any relief.

Outrageous line speeds also exacerbate threats to food safety.  When workers inevitably fall behind, the poultry ends up all over the slaughterhouse floor; as one worker said, “We’d have a pile of chickens as high as a car by the end of the night.”  With three carcasses whizzing by every minute under the USDA’s proposal, it will be nearly impossible for company inspectors to detect blood, feathers, tumors, and fecal matter on the line.  Even if they do notice contamination, they’ll have little power to do anything about it:

In an industry where a worker fears he may lose his job for stopping the line – even choosing to urinate on himself rather than risk angering a supervisor by requesting a bathroom break – it is a legitimate question to ask how these workers will summon the courage to slow the processing line to ensure only healthy, clean birds are shipped to the nation’s supermarkets.

Finally, the proposed rule does not require companies to train their employees on these new inspection activities, and companies are unlikely to provide such training on their own.  According to the report, 67 percent of workers interviewed were never even trained on their primary tasks.

Caught up in the Administration’s rush to deregulate, the USDA insisted that food safety would be improved under the new rule, against all available evidence (and common sense).  The risks to worker safety were ignored altogether, to be considered at some later date.  The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which normally runs an exhaustive interagency review process, failed to give the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) an opportunity to comment on the proposal.

As this report demonstrates, poultry processing poses unacceptable dangers even at current line speeds.  The USDA should withdraw its ill-considered proposal and come up with ways to “modernize” poultry inspection that address, rather than aggravate, these problems.  It could start by lowering line speeds and requiring new testing for pathogens, ideally in conjunction with efforts by OSHA to prevent musculoskeletal injuries and protect workers from retaliation.  Instead, the USDA appears determined to push ahead with its rule, content to throw workers and consumers from the frying pan into the fire.

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