On September 3, 1991, a hydraulic line burst in the Imperial Food Products Plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, spraying vaporized fluid into gas flames that were heating vats of frying oil. The workers were caught completely off guard and ran towards the doors. Many were unable to escape the flames because the fire exits were deadlocked from the outside.
Rescue workers found lifeless bodies near the locked exits, in a large cooler and even outside on the lawn. All 25 victims had apparently died from smoke inhalation. The owner of the plant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison: To deter employees from stealing, he himself had given the order that all the fire exits be locked. In the investigation following the tragedy, the North Carolina state labor commissioner admitted that the plant had not been inspected for safety in the 11 years it had been in business.
To avoid another disaster of similar proportions, the federal government commissioned several studies to look at the dangers that the country's more than 237,000 poultry workers face on the job. Poultry-processing and slaughtering work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Injuries peaked in 1995 when 51,000 poultry workers suffered work-related injuries or illnesses, but declined steadily to 12,700 by 2006.
Nevertheless, in a recent tour of poultry plants, inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration still encountered many locked fire exits -- meaning that the Imperial Food tragedy could happen again. But topping the list of hazards are faulty job design and employees' lack of control over their work.
OSHA has found that repetitive motion problems cause the most injuries among poultry workers. Most poultry plant work involves standing at a conveyor belt, cutting or deboning meat at breakneck speed.
"It's one of those industries where the movements are fast, repetitive, and stereotyped," says Dan Habes, an ergonomics expert at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). "Workers have no control over the speed, they can't stop to rest or take breaks when they want. Those are all principles of ergonomics: When you're hurting, you should be able to stop and take a break."
"Everything is so slippery"
But taking regular work breaks is not always so easy, according to a 30-year-old immigrant poultry worker interviewed by John Howe, co-editor of a collection of job profiles titled Gig (Crowne, 2000).
"If we are not done with the truckful of chickens, we cannot leave work at the end of our shift," the employee told Howe. "We are slaves... You just have to be very fast. You're not always working safely because you have to keep up with the production line. The managers always want more production in less time."
Indeed, his inside view is a glimpse into 19th century conditions: "You have to be careful with the knives and the machines, because everything is so slippery. A lot of fat falls on the machines and the floor. There's fat everywhere. Everything's greasy. So when there's a disk cutter with a rotating blade, your fingers are in danger."
The poultry worker also found the factory oppressively cold: "Outside it's hot, but inside the temperature has to be under 50 degrees. We get sick all year round even if we dress warm. Ice is always falling from the ceiling on your head. Some of it gets on your feet, into your boots. Your back's always cold, and your feet are always wet."
Repetitive tasks and awkward motions = repetitive strain injuries
Besides the speed and the cold, the work area in poultry plants is often set up awkwardly. Conveyer belts are typically a standard height, which forces tall workers to stoop and shorter workers to reach shoulder height to work the belt, according to ergonomics expert Habes. In addition, the straight-handled knives the workers use can pose serious risks. "They make all kinds of complicated cuts," Habes says, "and so if the knife doesn't bend, you have to bend your hand."
Such work conditions can result in crippling injuries. According to a study published in the American Journal of Independent Medicine, 50 percent of poultry workers reported three or more ongoing problems in the upper extremities, including decreased vibration sensitivity in their fingertips, impaired pinch strength, and numbness.
David Wylie, legal counsel for the Poultry and Turkey Industry Safety Committee, counters that technology has improved considerably. "In the last 10 years, there's been tremendous improvement in engineering and in the types of machinery processes available that eliminate a lot of the stressors that were placed on people in the past," he notes.
While new technology may be available, NIOSH expert Habes says the latest equipment often fails to make its way to what he terms "poultry sweatshops." Height-adjustable conveyor belts and better cutting knives, he says, are too expensive for plant owners to purchase. For poultry workers who don't work with sophisticated tools and machines, Habes suggests that they try to take as many breaks as possible -- admittedly difficult, he says, when the conveyor belt is continually in motion. Rotating tasks throughout the day is another possibility, but the actions need to be different enough to rest overworked muscles and avoid repetitive strain injury.
Greasy floors and equipment a menace
According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, back and shoulder injuries account for 26 percent of all poultry plant injuries. Many back injuries are the result of slips and falls on greasy floors, according to OSHA head Charles N. Jeffress. When workers spray birds with water to clean them, this creates a fatty, slippery film on the floor. Jeffress suggests that poultry plants keep to a rigorous cleaning routine to rid the floor of potentially harmful substances. A gritty, nonslip track and special, high-traction boots for workers can provide added protection for poultry workers.
Working with poultry also can create hidden health hazards. In the U.S. poultry industry, chicken are often given antibiotics mixed with feed to prevent infection. As a result, chicken develop resistance to antibiotics. That resistance is passed on to poultry workers. In a study of poultry workers, researchers found they were 32 times more likely to be resistant to the antibiotic gentamicin than people not working with poultry.
For workers constantly handling knives, cuts and lacerations are a continual hazard. As Jeffress notes, when people are working in overcrowded conditions, it's easy to cut yourself -- and even your neighbor. But industry lawyer Wylie says that technology has helped reduce lacerations in the past several years. "There is mechanical deboning of meat, there are water jets and laser cutting, and there are a lot fewer knife and scissor jobs than there used to be," he says, adding that the protective gear has improved as well.
Some companies have exchanged their cumbersome chain-mesh safety gear for tough but lightweight cloth gloves and aprons. "Technology is finally catching up in the poultry industry," says Wylie "That's a great benefit to both the companies and the employees themselves because the equipment is lighter, more efficient, more flexible, and more protective."
Dust and chemicals add to the hazards
A lesser-known hazard to poultry workers is the dust and droppings from live poultry, which can cause respiratory problems such as pneumonia or asthma in workers. A NIOSH study states that poultry workers are more likely to suffer from bronchitis, chronic cough, excessive phlegm, and chest tightness than workers in other industries.
The culprit, the researchers speculate, might be dust or other allergens from poultry or chemicals such as the ammonia used in refrigeration or the chlorine used in the water to clean the birds. OSHA safety sheets on both of these chemicals should be posted at all poultry plants. To rid the plant of harmful chicken dust, Wylie suggests ventilating the plant thoroughly by opening the windows or using exhaust fans.
Despite the precautions and numerous health tips, why does poultry work continue to be so dangerous? Part of the problem is that the safety rules on the books aren't well enforced. Poultry plants are not inspected often, and when labor or safety violations are found, plant owners are rarely forced to correct them. Some experts say it's because many poultry workers are immigrants who may not be aware of their rights. In addition, the poor conditions and low pay create a high employee turnover, so workers tend to not stick around long enough to demand better conditions. And ultimately, it's our ever-increasing demand for inexpensive chicken that fuels the need for more and more poultry industry workers to work long, difficult hours.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Established in 1970 by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, NIOSH is a federal research agency that makes recommendations to help employers prevent job-related injuries and illnesses.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW)
This union has approximately 1.3 million members who are employed in poultry, meatpacking, and other manufacturing and retail jobs. Their comprehensive Web site offers safety and health tips and information on current standards and regulations.
U.S Dept. of Labor. Poultry Compliance Survey Fact Sheet. Jan. 2000.
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Occupational Injuries and Illnesses; industry data, 1989-2001."
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Occupational Injuries and Illnesses; industry data, 2002."
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Mustajbegovic J, Kern J. Respiratory Function in Poultry Workers and Pharmacologic Characterization of Poultry Dust Extract. Environ Res 1995 Jul;70(1);11-19.
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Bureau of Labor Statistics. Incidence rate and number of nonfatal injuries by industry, private industry, 2006.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Number of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work by industry and affected parts of body affected by injury or illness, 2005.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Number of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work, poultry processing, 2006.
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