A new report documents harsh conditions on the disassembly line. But producers say they are “proud of advancements in worker safety.”
The average American poultry plant today is found at the edge of a highway, near a company town, lights blazing and chimneys smoking at all hours. Outside, the ground is all concrete and feathers, and the air smells of fried chicken and bird feces. Inside, the plant is humid, loud, and cold — kept at low temperatures to better preserve the chicken. Sharp knives fly alongside powerful machinery, and everywhere are chemicals, like ammonia and chlorine, used for cleaning, processing, and cooking. Floors are slick with blood, grease, and water to periodically clear away viscera and offal.
This is the workplace in which America’s favorite meat is produced. Over the past half century, Americans have tripled their poultry consumption, and the $50 billion industry today employs a quarter of a million workers. This workforce is anything but stable: By some estimates, employee turnover in the sector has been higher than 100% in recent years.
The churn is due in part to grueling labor conditions in the plants, where low-wage workers repeat the same hanging, twisting, slicing, and hacking motions thousands of times a day to process fowl at ever-increasing speeds, as described in a new report from Oxfam America. The work leads to high rates of musculoskeletal disorders — five times that of other industries, according to the most recent numbers from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — as line workers’ hands swell and warp from the stress, leaving them unable to hold spoons, glasses, or their children.
While workplace injuries are reported and tracked by OSHA, critics of the industry say such numbers are unreliable estimates of the true scale of harm being done to worker health. Injured staff who should be at home healing may instead be asked to come in and sit in an office so they don’t appear on lost time logs, Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA legislative analyst now teaching at George Washington University, told BuzzFeed News.
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