With 2020 barely underway, the poultry industry has already experienced two workplace fatalities, at facilities in two different states. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) says those incidents, along with a government-approved increase in line speeds at poultry slaughterhouses, illustrate the need for safety reforms in the industry. The poultry industry maintains that employees are considerably safer now on the job than in the past, and points to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data to back up that claim.

2020 fatalities

On January 6th, 35-year-old Gabriel Seth Brutley was killed in an incident involving a mechanical lift at a JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Guntersville, Alabama. Nine days later, on January 15th, 38-year-old Chit Tuay, 38, died at a Fieldale Farms plant in Murrayville, Georgia. Tuay was cleaning a scalder – a machine used in poultry processing – when he fell into the equipment and broke his neck.

“Neither of these tragic deaths was an ‘accident,’” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “Poultry is a dangerous industry where workers face injury rates higher than the national average for all private industry. If proper safety protocols had been implemented – with the required safety equipment, the required training, and full worker involvement – these fatalities could have been prevented. Gabriel Brutley and Chit Tuay should be alive and with their families today.”

An 84 percent decrease

However, the National Chicken Council (NCC), a poultry industry association, says the industry has made strides in worker safety and points to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2018 Injury and Illness Report showing an 84 percent decrease in the incidence of occupational injuries and illnesses in the poultry sector’s slaughter and processing workforce. That decline, says the NCC, represents “the vast advancements the industry has made in improving safety for its workforce.”

USDA oks line speed increases

Both the Fieldale Farms Murrayville plant and the JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride Guntersville plant recently received special waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), allowing them to increase line speeds from butchering 140 chickens per minute to 175 birds per minute. National COSH says the waivers "were granted by USDA despite an alarming record of recent preventable fractures, lacerations, amputations, and workplace fatalities at both facilities." This includes a dozen serious incidents in both plants since 2015, according to data compiled by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and National COSH.”

“When chicken slaughter plants increase the number of birds they kill per minute, production for every worker – including sanitation workers – ramps up as everyone works harder and faster to process and pack the product and sanitize equipment for the increase in output,” said Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director at the NELP. “This increases the likelihood of serious injuries among poultry workers, who are disproportionately people of color and immigrants. The USDA granted these special waivers despite strong opposition from workers, public health advocates, and consumer groups.”

Speed limits, full inspections

National COSH and NELP are calling on the USDA to stop issuing waivers for increased line speeds. In addition, the groups said OSHA should conduct wall-to-wall safety inspections in the facilities where the fatalities occurred and increase full inspections throughout the industry. The organizations point to the fact that Brutley’s death is the second fatality at a JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride plant within the past year. In February 2019, a worker died at the company’s Lexington, Georgia facility when he was struck by an industrial truck while catching chickens for slaughter at 4 am.

In 2012, a Pilgrim’s Pride worker named Christopher Chin died on the job at the company’s Canton, Georgia plant while attempting to remove a piece of cardboard from a hopper. The preventable death “resulted from equipment that could easily have been guarded," said U.S. OSHA Atlanta-East Area Office Director Bill Fulcher in 2013, following an investigation into Chin’s death.

In addition, according to OSHA records, at least four workers have suffered major injuries since 2016 at the Guntersville plant where Brutley died earlier this month.

In July 2015, Ricardo Aburto died at Fieldale’s Murrayville, Georgia plant when exposed to an uninsulated wire while repairing a light fixture. The company was cited by OSHA and fined $4,900 for the safety violations that led to Aburto’s death.

  • Click here for an infographic showing a timeline of safety incidents at JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride.
  • Click here for one for safety incidents at Fieldale Farms.

“When large companies like JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride and Fieldale Farms fail to make safety a priority, it makes no sense to allow them to speed up their lines, which makes every working day even more dangerous for poultry workers,” said Martinez.