MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Poultry workers in Alabama are faced with dangerous working conditions and threats, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Montgomery, Ala.
The SPLC and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice released the report titled Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama's Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers. The document is based on interviews with 300 current and former Alabama poultry workers.
“The hard-working people who produce our food should be protected from dangerous conditions that lead to avoidable injuries, and they should not be expected to double as food safety inspectors,” said Tom Fritzsche, SPLC staff attorney and author of the report. “The current system may be profitable for the poultry companies, but it relies on systematic exploitation of workers. Now, regulators are about to make conditions even more hazardous.”
The report comes as the US Department of Agriculture plans to implement a new poultry inspection system, in which company employees in most chicken and turkey slaughter plants would be responsible for checking eviscerated carcasses for visual defects such as bruising and sorting out those that are unlikely to pass federal inspection. A single federal inspector would be stationed at the end of the line, just before the chill tank, to conduct a final visual inspection. Poultry companies will be required to conduct microbiological testing on raw chickens and turkeys and share the results with the federal government.
Tom Super, vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, refuted the allegations, saying that USDA is modernizing its poultry inspection system which was developed in the 1950s. The proposed changes are based on a pilot program running in 20 chicken plants since 1999.
"There is no evidence in the pilot program over the past 15 years to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries, Super said. "In fact, those employees working in second processing, such as cutters and deboners, would not be affected at all. Line speeds in those areas would not be increased as a result of this program.
"The rule would affect first processing and evisceration which today are largely automated," he added.
Super said USDA must approve line speeds, and USDA inspectors are present continuously in poultry slaughter facilities. He said inspectors have the ability to slow down or stop processing lines. Additionally, the lines have an emergency shut-off switch.
"Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry over the last several decades has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, by recognizing the value of implementing ergonomics principles," Super said. "Companies also adhere to OSHA’s recommended guidelines that further help protect poultry workers."
Poultry processing rates declined 74 percent from 1994 (the oldest data available on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website) to 2011. This demonstrates the progress the industry has made in improving safety for its workforce, according to Super.
"It’s unfortunate that the claims raised in this report are simply not grounded in facts, especially as they relate to USDA’s proposal to modernize poultry inspection," he said.
However, the SPLC claims the new regime poses a threat to consumer safety and will result in more injuries to workers. The group’s report recommends:
• The USDA should withdraw its proposed rule increasing maximum line speeds.
• OSHA should affirmatively regulate line speeds and the number of birds per minute each worker may be required to process.
• OSHA should issue comprehensive ergonomics regulations to reduce musculoskeletal disorders arising from repetitive motion in the poultry industry.
• Federal and state lawmakers should enact stronger anti-retaliation protections and prohibit practices that obstruct workers’ access to medical treatment.
• Alabama should enact a Poultry Workers Bill of Rights to protect this large sector of its workforce.