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What Are the Health Hazards of the Poultry Processing Industry?

From dangerous equipment to biological contaminants, poultry processing factories are dangerous places to work. Employees stand along a conveyor belt, completing various jobs that turn live birds into meat for sale. With slippery floors, sharp tools, and crowded quarters, the work environment is inherently hazardous.

Further, employees work at breakneck speeds to keep up with the conveyor belt, which can legally process about 140 birds per minute. Workers repeat the same motions over and over again, often without breaks or opportunities to use the bathroom. Sometimes, their tasks require them to use knives, maneuver awkwardly, or be covered in animal blood and feces.

The most common injuries in the poultry industry include:

  • Repetitive stress injuries (RSIs)
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Cuts and lacerations
  • Problems with the upper extremities
  • Back and shoulder injuries
  • Crushed fingers or hands
  • Slip and fall injuries
  • Amputations
  • Burns
  • Blindness
  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Hemorrhoids and UTIs
  • Diarrheal disease
  • Skin infections

According to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report, the meat and poultry processing industry had the 8th highest number of severe injury and illness reports nationwide. This means working in poultry processing can be more dangerous than logging, coal mining, and even drilling for oil.

Big Business in Alabama

Around 85,000 workers are employed by about 25 major poultry processing plants in Alabama. The major companies are as follows:

  • Tyson Foods
  • Pilgrim’s Pride
  • Wayne Farms
  • Koch Goods
  • AlaTrade Foods
  • Cagle’s
  • Equity Group

In a recent survey of Alabama’s poultry workers by Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center, 72% of respondents had endured a significant work-related injury or illness.

Of the workers surveyed, 66% suffered from hand or wrist pain, swelling, numbness, or an inability to close their hands (all symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders). Another 78% of workers said the speed of the “line” made them feel less safe, made their work more painful, and caused more injuries. Many employees (66% of those surveyed) believe their coworkers do not speak up about their injuries or complain about working conditions for fear of being fired or deported.

Like most employers in Alabama, poultry plants are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. For workers, however, the insurance exists mostly on paper. Only 29% of those who came forward with injuries or illnesses received workers’ comp and 68% of workers are not comfortable asking their employers to fix occupational hazards. Although workers’ comp laws prevent retaliation, poultry employees know that filing a claim or asking for change could mean risking their jobs.

Employee Safety a Low Priority

Even when an accidental death occurs at the workplace, justice is not as swift as one would expect. A Connecticut congresswoman practically had to beg for federal officials to conduct a “full and thorough investigation” after a worker fell to his death from a material lift at a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Guntersville, Alabama. Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) claims to have opened an investigation, the plant should have been examined earlier.

Before the death, the Guntersville processing facility had been the site of four serious injuries, all of which resulted in amputations or hospitalizations. To make matters worse, the plant received permission to increase line speeds from 140 to 175 chickens per minute from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2019.

Complaints Lead to Consequences

When the Southern Poverty Law Center submitted complaints about Alabama’s Wayne Farms poultry plant to OSHA, the agency initiated an investigation. Ultimately, OSHA issued 11 citations to the plant with proposed penalties of $102,600.

In a statement, officials said:

OSHA found that workers in this plant were exposed to safety and musculoskeletal hazards and suffered serious injuries as a result.”

Employers also failed to protect workers from moving parts of dangerous machinery and exposed them to safety hazards like unguarded machines, slippery floors, and fall hazards. OSHA issued an additional citation for failure to report incidents and concealing work-related injuries and illnesses.

Shine a Light on Your Working Conditions

If you work in the poultry industry and have experienced any of the injuries or illnesses we discuss in this blog post, please contact our firm today. Our attorneys at Morris, Andrews, Talmadge & Driggers, LLC can help you file a successful workers’ compensation claim, protect you from retaliation, and even change your working conditions with OSHA complaints and other litigation tactics.

Don’t hesitate to get help. Call us today at (844) 654-6228 or set up a free, confidential consultation online.