On July 3, 2015, an employee of Tyson Foods was preparing for work at the line 4B tender clipping station at the company’s poultry processing plant in Sedalia, Missouri.
The stand slipped, pinching her middle finger between the frame and the processing line. Her finger was amputated between the nail-bed and first knuckle.
Two similar incidents in which a worker’s finger was caught in machinery, resulting in amputation, occurred in Wisconsin poultry processing plants between 2015 and Aug. 31, 2017, according to OSHA.
The meat and poultry processing industry had the eighth-highest number of severe injury reports of all industries in 2015, according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report. And in 2016, poultry processing alone had a higher rate of injury and illness than logging, coal mining and oil and gas extraction, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wisconsin has dozens of small and medium-sized plants and major companies. The largest Wisconsin poultry processors reported eight serious injuries since 2015, according to OSHA, including two finger amputations and one person who possibly succumbed to heat.
Although the meat and poultry processing industry’s injury rate has been dropping for years, it remains higher than average for manufacturing, and vast numbers of injuries never get reported in the first place, according to a 2016 GAO report.
“You can go back to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and read about the horrendous conditions in this particular industry,” said Lance Compa, senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and author of a 2005 Human Rights Watch report describing the alarming working conditions plaguing the industry.
“We knew that the meatpacking industry was inherently dangerous and risky,” Compa said — and it still is today.
For the over 300,000 poultry workers in the United States, clocking in doesn’t just mean facing these hazards. It also means another day of working at blistering speeds to satisfy the country’s colossal appetite for chicken. In 2016, the average American ate almost 90 pounds worth, and companies large and small collectively slaughtered more than eight billion birds the same year.
“Workers in meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants continue to face hazardous conditions, including sharp knives used in close quarters, slippery floors, and chemical exposures,” a 2017 GAO report says.
Jessica Leibler, an environmental health professor at Boston University who has been conducting research on workers in the animal and food industries for more than 10 years, said workers often get cuts from knives or sharp instruments of their own or from a co-worker who accidentally cuts them.
“It’s inherently a dangerous work environment,” Leibler said.
Contributing to this danger are inconsistent worker training practices across the industry. Although Compa said OSHA might have guidelines about how to train employees, he said the agency has no legal requirements for how training should be handled.
Language barriers pose an additional challenge to proper training. In two plants investigated by the GAO in its 2016 report, workers spoke at least 20 different languages.
“There can be workers from countries all over the world, and they need training in the language that they speak,” Leibler said. “Sometimes that’s provided, sometime’s that’s not provided.”
Severe workplace injuries — “crushed fingers or hands, amputations, burns or blindness” — can result from moving machine parts that workers use, according to a 2016 GAO report. The report mentioned one meat and poultry worker who lost most use of her arm after her apron “caught in a machine, which pulled her arm in before the machine could be turned off.”
Almost two-thirds of cutters and over half of all deboners and hangers reported being injured on the job, according to a report by the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center examining working conditions in that state’s poultry processing plants.
Even though workers are plagued by injuries — sometimes chronic ones like shoulder, neck and back pain from the repetitive motions — employees are oftentimes motivated to continue working, Leibler said.
“They need their income,” Leibler said. “They’re supporting families, they’re supporting extended family, spouses, children. They want to keep working.”
The GAO also raised concerns about workers’ access to bathrooms in a 2017 report, saying workers in five states cited bathroom access as a concern but that they were afraid to report it to visiting OSHA inspectors. Denial of timely bathroom breaks can cause hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, constipation and abdominal pain.
According to the report, one meat and poultry industry representative said “some supervisors in meat and poultry plants deny bathroom access to maximize production output.”
Cindy Brown Barnes, the GAO’s director of education, workforce and income security issues, said although the GAO recommended that OSHA investigate bathroom access, OSHA lacks the resources to ask workers about bathroom access at each inspection.
Many worker injuries can be traced to the “line,” the conveyor belt that zooms birds from station to station, taking them from live chickens to cut-up pieces. Critics have called the fast pace of these lines one of the more dangerous parts of working in poultry processing.
Lance Compa is a senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y., where he teaches U.S. labor law and international labor rights. Compa says conditions at U.S. poultry plants pose risks to worker safety. “The line can go as fast as the human body can withstand — and even faster than the human body can withstand.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the agency responsible for regulating line speeds and currently caps the maximum number of birds a plant can process at 140 per minute. Processors can apply for waivers that allow for a speed of up to 175 birds per minute.
“I think the line speed is quite fast, in my view — too fast for a human worker to do the task that they need to do and keep up,” Leibler said.
On the line, repetitive, high-speed movements can combine with awkward body positioning and cold environments to put workers at risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder and injury, according to a 2016 GAO report.
The USDA regulates line speeds based on food safety, not worker safety. Maria Machuca, public affairs specialist for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services, said in an email that historically “line speeds were based on old work metrics that calculated the time and distance required for an inspector to walk between inspection stations” to check chicken carcasses. She added that modern verification tests have also been added to test for pathogens.
Burleson said Tyson’s policy and practices “encourage plant team members to stop the line at any time for worker or food safety issues.”
Line speeds have drawn the attention of activists and workers rights’ groups. Leibler said “there has been legislative efforts in the last few years to slow down the line speed, which have not been successful.”
Despite several groups petitioning in 2013 for OSHA to create a workers safety standard relating to animals processed per minute, the agency declined, citing insufficient resources.
This lack of regulation benefits companies’ bottom lines, Compa said.
“Getting the chicken out the door and getting as many chickens as you can in an eight-hour shift is the be-all, end-all of the operation,” Compa said. “That’s what companies want to do. The line can go as fast as the human body can withstand — and even faster than the human body can withstand.”
Compa said the industry remains focused on profits, not people.
“They’d rather maintain the fiction that they have really healthy and safe workplaces,” Compa said.