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Danger to Southern Poultry Workers Highlighted in Congressional Testimony

In response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to increase line speeds at factories specializing in poultry evisceration, advocates with the Southern Poverty Law Center testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that workers are subjected to “disabling harm” even under the current guidelines.
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A report published by the SPLC last year, titled “Unsafe at These Speeds,” detailed the poor work conditions of thousands of poultry processing plant workers in Alabama. The details caught the attention of Atlanta workers’ compensation lawyers, as Alabama is third in American poultry production. Georgia is No. 1, annually responsible for producing 25 million pounds of chicken, 14 million eggs, employing 47,000 directly statewide and 77,000 indirectly and generating $13.5 billion.

Many of those workers are Latin American migrants (mostly from Mexico), a population that has expanded in Georgia since the 1990s by 300 percent. While industry leaders tout the opportunities these jobs provide to the migrant workers, the reality is much darker.

In the SPLC’s report, three-quarters of those interviewed described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. The report showed that while work-related injuries at poultry processing plants are greatly under-reported (often due to threats of deportation), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported an injury rate of nearly 6 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010. That is more than 50 percent higher than the injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Among those injuries most commonly sustained:

  • Debilitating pain their hands;
  • Chemical burns;
  • Gnarled fingers;
  • Repetitive motion injuries (most commonly carpal tunnel syndrome).

Those who get sick or even visit a doctor or nurse outside of those approved by the company are often fired or threatened with sanctions.

Three-quarters of the more than 300 workers interviewed indicated that the speed at which they are required to work makes their job more dangerous. Workers who asked for the line to be slowed were threatened with termination, according to the report.

Current USDA regulations require that plants cap their maximum processing speed at 140 birds per minute. The USDA’s new proposal would up that number to 175 birds per minute.

This proposal has been criticized not only by worker safety advocates, but by food safety advocates as well, who contend this would severely limit the workers’ ability to spot potentially tainted birds.

Worker safety in general has been a low priority, according the SPLC report. Safety scrubs intended to protect workers from cleaning chemicals reportedly tear easily – after just a few days of use – and requests for replacements are often denied, with the suits remaining in use sometimes for months on end. Some workers experienced exposure to chemicals that caused their fingernails to blacken and fall off.

However, when inspectors from OSHA were anticipated, workers were reportedly told by their bosses to slow the line, clean more thoroughly and adhere closely to the company’s official policies. This practice, according to the SPLC, has allowed the industry to successfully conceal dangerous working conditions from OSHA inspectors.

Interestingly, around the same time as this Congressional hearing was taking place, Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, has voiced concerns that OSHA has announced increasing its inspections at certain manufacturing plants in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi over the next two years. She says federal safety officials are unfairly singling out Southern right-to-work states.

However, in light of the evidence uncovered by the SPLC, it would appear a closer eye on industry might not be such a bad thing.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
SPLC testifies about worker abuse in U.S. meatpacking, poultry plants, March 25, 2014, Southern Poverty Law Center
More Blog Entries:
Documentation of Work Injury Imperative for Successful Claim, March 24, 2014, Georgia Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog