Poultry Industry Danger Highlighted at Congressional Hearing

In light of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposal to allow work-speed increases within the nation’s poultry processing plants, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights heard testimony from work safety advocates asserting that such action would not only increase the risk of foodborne illness, but worker injuries as well.
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Charlotte workers’ compensation lawyers know that North Carolina ranks No. 4 in the country’s poultry processing industry, employing some 28,000 workers statewide and producing some 3.7 billion pounds of chicken. That represents more than 25 percent of our state’s total agricultural take for the year.

And yet, workers in these plants frequently suffer serious injuries, though they are vastly under-reported. A 2013 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center called “Unsafe at These Speeds” focuses on Alabama’s poultry industry, interviewing more than 300 workers and culling federal data from the Bureau of Labor and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Alabama ranks third in the nation for poultry production.

What the researchers found were very poor working conditions, often involving migrant workers who were threatened with deportation or firing if they reported illness or injury. They worked in cold temperatures and were required to use dull knives to process some 100 birds in a single minute.

Approximately three-quarters of the poultry workers polled indicated that they had suffered some significant work-related illness or injury. Federal statistics back their claims, with OSHA indicating an injury rate of nearly 6 percent for poultry industry workers – more than 50 percent higher than national injury rate of 3.5 percent for all U.S. workers. Consider too that studies conducted in 2004 and 2012 have indicated that OSHA work injury counts miss between 33 and 69 percent of all work-related injuries.

Among the more common injuries for poultry workers are chemical burns, respiratory ailments, debilitating pain in their hands and repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

A big part of the problem, researchers indicated, was that the line was designed for the pace of machinery, rather than humans. Current regulations hold that the poultry processing line speed is not to exceed 140 birds per minute. However, new USDA regulation will increase that figure to 175 birds per minute. That means a single bird would have one-third of a second to be inspected.

Food safety advocates fear this will mean workers won’t be able to accurately identify potentially tainted birds.

Worker safety advocates, such as those at the SPLC, testified that this measure will inevitably result in an uptick in worker injuries. As it stands, nearly 80 percent of all workers interviewed indicated that the current line speed makes them feel “unsafe” and that makes their work more painful. However, when those concerns were raised to employers, workers reported in some cases that their bosses responded by increasing the speed or even firing the worker who reported the issue.

Increasing the speed, SPLC advocates say, will result in more cuts, gashes and repetitive motion injuries.

Those who have suffered a work-related injury are entitled to collect workers’ compensation. Because many employers in this industry have proven that they put poultry profits before people, it’s imperative that workers first seek the counsel of an experienced workers’ compensation attorney before filing a claim.

If you have been injured at work in Charlotte, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
SPLC testifies about worker abuse in U.S. meatpacking, poultry plants, March 25, 2014, Southern Poverty Law nter

More Blog Entries
Annual Report Reveals Numerous Investigations into Workplace Safety at North Carolina Businesses and Job Sites, Nov. 26, 2011, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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