Poultry Processing is Hazardous Work: An Interview with Tom Fritzsche of the SPLC

Imagine working in a frigid, frenzied poultry plant. The floor is “often wet and slippery from dripping blood, guts, and the ‘chicken juices’ found throughout the facility.” The maximum line speed is 140 chickens per minute, which means that you are probably doing the same motion over and over to process up to two birds a second. You repeat this motion at breakneck speed for eight hours or more. And then you go back the next day to do it all over again.

It is hard to imagine maintaining this arduous work for very long, and the resulting injuries are not surprising. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Alabama Appleseed published Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers. Based on more than 300 interviews with current and former workers, the report asserts that the majority of workers interviewed said that the line speed renders their work more dangerous. Moreover, “[n]early three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed … described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness.” Yet these low-paid workers are often prevented from reporting their injuries due to a “climate of fear” predicated on threats of deportation or firing.

I spoke with Tom Fritzsche, a staff attorney at the SPLC and author of the report, to discuss the problems that poultry workers confront, as well as possible legal and regulatory solutions for improving their working conditions. In our discussion, Tom also stressed the connection between worker safety and consumer safety, noting that “sometimes the line won’t even stop for chicken carcasses falling off line,” which workers have described as creating “a pile of carcasses as high as a car by the end of the shift. … And a lot of the time they try to reuse those chickens.” The difficulties in maintaining the current line speed makes the USDA’s plan to increase the maximum line speed to 175 chickens per minute all the more disturbing, for both workers and consumers.

What are some of the main problems that poultry processing workers face?
The biggest thing that workers felt was a problem was how fast the plants run. The line speeds lead to a whole array of problems. The most direct effect that speed has is on musculoskeletal health, so workers develop a lot of problems with carpal tunnel syndrome … and the speed can lead to serious injuries. The other effect is that workers don’t get the kinds of rest breaks that workers need in order to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome or minimize the impact of repetitive motion injures. They’re not getting serious rest breaks, but [also] not having even the chance to stop and ask for a sharper knife once the original knife gets dull. … And [they’re] not able to get bathroom breaks. Basically, they’re faced with the choice of leaving the line without permission – to sprint to the bathroom and hope that they can get back without getting fired – or having to go to the bathroom while working, which is a crazy choice to have to make. … About 80% of workers said that they weren’t able to use the bathroom when they wanted to go. A number said that they or a coworker had … to urinate on themselves while working.

Your report pointed out that even though injured workers are entitled to workers’ compensation, they often aren’t able to obtain it. What are the main obstacles to poultry workers’ ability to access workers’ compensation?
One reason that’s kind of unique to Alabama is a piece of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation code, which sets a higher burden of proof for workers who are looking for compensation for repetitive motion injuries than for other injuries. Basically, their argument is that you can develop carpal tunnel syndrome from doing dishes or other activities at home, and that doing the same motion a thousand times a day at work isn’t necessarily the reason for the injury. … Some of the other obstacles tend to be that it’s hard to confront a large corporation as your employer when they know the system and you don’t, and [you don’t have] a lot of access to attorneys or English isn’t your first language, and there aren’t a lot of attorneys who have the capacity to represent you effectively. A lot of claims go unfiled in the first place for that reason. One other problem is that it’s hard to navigate and win without an attorney. But the incentive for attorneys to take on these types of cases is very low, because the payouts for workers for medical treatments or lost wages are very low … for example, a disabling injury to your hands might offer such a low payout that attorneys find it’s more expensive to put the case together and take it through the process [than their potential payment].

Do you think there is a way to restructure the system to change the incentives so that lawyers would take on these cases?
Sure. The simplest thing to do would be to raise the payouts for workers. Or, alternatively, make the system easier for workers to navigate themselves.

Your report states that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers. Does OSHA have guidelines for other industries, and what practical impact would mandatory guidelines have in the poultry industry?
What you see is that the General Duty Clause, which is really the primary violation that a poultry plant could be cited for [regarding] an ergonomic or musculoskeletal injury, doesn’t get cited often. More often OSHA is able to enforce other standards … For example, rules on lockout and tagout of a machine – before a worker cleans a machine, there are supposed to be clear procedures to ensure that the machine is fully locked to prevent injuries. … So that type of very specific regulation governs poultry plants as well as other industries, and OSHA does enforce that when it makes inspections.

But there are other industries where you see specific regulations, like for certain types of chemical or petroleum industry plants – for example, how many parts per million of benzene are in the air or work environment. Those types of regulations will provide OSHA with a much clearer standard to enforce and also for the employer to meet. And more clarity means it is easier to meet standards and to enforce them.

If there were a line speed standard or maximum that OSHA could enforce, or a “birds permitted per worker” regulation, that would at least give a clear standard and would be something that companies and workers could use.

Your report recommends that Alabama enact a Poultry Workers Bill of Rights. What would this include, and how would it be enforced?
That idea is based on the Nebraska Meatpacking Workers Bill of Rights, which was promoted by the Nebraska Appleseed Center …. A lot of what [the Nebraska law] does is require better sharing of information and training for workers. We think it would be helpful if workers were given more information about what their rights are.

We would also want to see some workers’ compensation reform [in a Poultry Workers Bill of Rights] and make sure that workers can’t be fired or retaliated against for reporting a safety violation, asking for a bathroom break, or reporting an injury. Some of those problems are things that are partially addressed under OSHA’s regulations or other schemes but are much harder to enforce. If there were a way for workers to enforce those issues under a state scheme, it would make those rights much easier to enforce.

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