Fowl Play In the Slaughterhouse


In my hometown of Gainesville, Ga., there's a statue of a broiler hen, a monument to one of the longtime mainstays of the region's economy. Today I live in Kansas, where beef is king and bovine statuary is common. And over in the Corn Belt, the winner of the annual football game between the universities of Iowa and Minnesota takes home a big bronze hog representing both states' favorite farm animal.

Public art honors these doomed objects of our affection for their contribution to the American diet and economy. Recent years have also brought growing awareness of the often-cruel conditions under which they are raised and slaughtered.

But as far as I know, there are no monuments to the workers who kill and process cattle, hogs, chickens or other livestock. And in one of the nation's most grueling and dangerous industries, laws meant to protect those workers are often inadequate and getting worse.

Foreseeable and preventable

In its January 2005 report, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants, the organization Human Rights Watch amassed a mountain of data and personal testimony demonstrating that everyday conditions in plants from North Carolina to Nebraska to Arkansas violate a host of international human-rights standards.

The report concludes that the risk of injury in the beef, swine and poultry industries is "constant, foreseeable and preventable."

One of the most common problems is repetitive-motion injury. A 2002 Fortune magazine article reported that while the overall injury rate in poultry plants was more than double the average for private industries, "poultry workers are 14 times more likely to suffer debilitating injuries stemming from repetitive trauma."

Look through the Human Rights Watch report or Eric Schlosser's 2001 bestseller, "Fast Food Nation," and read the ghastly stories of workers' lives in any of the meat-processing industries. Then pick one of the jobs they describe, a single task, and try to imagine repeating it all day long, as quickly as you can.

Better yet, take two 5-pound weights, hang them on hooks above your head, pull them down, and then repeat the cycle maybe 15,000 times in an 8- to 12-hour day. Be sure to do this in the dampest possible conditions, with the temperature either above 90 or below 50 degrees. Imagine that the weights are panicky live animals with beaks and claws. If you need a break, you might try cutting half-frozen chickens apart with dull scissors for a while.

If your hands, wrists or back don't ache the next morning, repeat the process five or six days per week until they do. Don't worry -- they will.

Repetitive-motion injuries are commonplace throughout the slaughtering and processing industries, but they are epidemic in poultry work. Very large numbers of the relatively small animals pass through a plant each hour, requiring workers to repeat their actions more often than in beef or pork plants.

On a recent visit to Gainesville, home of the chicken monument, I asked Dr. Nabil Muhanna, a local neurosurgeon, about one of the poultry industry's most common repetitive-motion problems, carpal-tunnel syndrome. He pointed to his own wrist to show me where the median nerve passes between the bones of the wrist on one side and the transverse carpal ligament on the other. That is, he said, how the nerve is naturally "packaged."

The pain of carpal-tunnel syndrome is caused by an inflamed median nerve.

But some of the hand and arm motions required of poultry and meat workers, if they're repeated enough times, cause inflammation of the nerve. The resulting severe pain can be relieved by cutting through the ligament to loosen the "packaging," but the wrist remains weak. For decades, Dr. Muhanna has been slitting the transverse carpal ligaments of poultry workers, as well as performing surgery to relieve the misery associated with other of their work-related conditions, such as lumbar stenosis and disk disease.

I asked Dr. Muhanna to help me interpret a figure I had seen -- a claim that there is a recorded 15 percent incidence rate for repetitive motion injuries in the poultry industry. When he reacted with sharp disbelief, I thought he was going to say the figure is exaggerated.

Instead, he said, "Look, if you work at hanging and cutting chickens long enough, you will inevitably get carpal-tunnel." And other repetitive motions, like squatting, will always create health problems if done constantly, he says.

If Dr. Muhanna is right, many workers either have unreported -- and probably untreated -- injuries or they haven't stayed on the job long enough to succumb. (The industry has a notoriously high turnover rate.)

Steve Striffler, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, has seen the pervasiveness of carpal-tunnel firsthand. He got a job on the so-called "saw line" in a poultry plant run by Tyson Foods, Inc., and recorded his observations in his book, "Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America's Favorite Food." Striffler told me that "virtually all the women who worked on my line wore some kind of device because of problems with their wrists -- all due to the repetitive nature of the job."

Use 'em and lose 'em

Since the 1980s, ownership in the meat and poultry industries has become heavily concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, and competition among those behemoths is fierce. To cut costs, companies are squeezing maximum output from a minumum number of workers.

That means more wear and tear on human bodies, with predictably grim consequences. Consider Guillermo Sanjuan.

Sanjuan, a Mexican immigrant, worked at an Iowa Beef Processors, Inc. (IBP) plant in Kansas. According to court records, he performed "the strenuous task of a flanker, that is, removing the hide and flank off cattle by pulling up with an air knife to cut the hide with one hand and ripping the hide off with the other hand." When, in July 1992, he complained of pain in his left arm, shoulder, and back, a company doctor diagnosed Sanjuan with repetitive motion syndrome and restricted him to light duty.

Sanjuan testified that after he switched to light duty, "his supervisors mistreated him by yelling at him, threatening him if he did not return to his regular job and not allowing him to seek medical care." After a few months of such treatment, he was fired.

Sanjuan had never been disciplined for poor performance before he was hurt, and he argued successfully in court that the company had fired him in retaliation for exercising his right under Kansas law to be assigned less strenuous tasks after an on-the-job injury. But through repeated appeals, IBP was able to delay for ten years before paying damages. In 2002, Sanjuan finally had his claim upheld in the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Steve Striffler's written account of his experience on the line at Tyson, he described what happened when the plant increased the electricity supply to the breading machine that he operated, eliminating breakdowns:
"For the rest of the workers, particularly those on-line, it is devastating. The lines shut down less, there are fewer breaks, and the pace is quicker. By the end of the week, Blanca, a Mexican woman in her 50s, is simply overwhelmed. She has been hanging chickens for too many years, and her body simply cannot stand the faster pace of the production line. Hoping to stay at Tyson till she retires, Blanca is forced to quit within the week."
A vivid illustration of the link between company greed and workers' injuries can be found in an appendix to the Human Rights Watch report, where portions of a 2003 federal court transcript are reproduced. Here is a U.S. attorney questioning a Tyson manager:
After you got to [the] Glen Allen [, Virgina, poultry plant], were there any major processing changes?
Yes. We went to the 50 degrees, which eliminated washdown time
When you say you went to 50 degrees, I think you're going to have to explain that a little more.
We lowered -- what we did was we lowered the temperature of the plant in order to eliminate a midshift washdown because by lowering the plant temperature, what you do is slow bacterial growth, therefore, it eliminates a need for washdown, and, therefore, more production can be achieved.
What had the temperature in the plant been before that change?
Sixty plus degrees. High sixties.
Did Tyson just turn the thermostat down?
No, sir. It was a major expansion. And they had to install the HVAC machines, like massive air conditioners…to make it the desired temperature to meet USDA specifications to avoid a washdown. …
Did that change in plant temperature and working conditions have an adverse effect on staffing at the Glen Allen plant?
Yes, sir.
It sure did, because what it was doing, it was taking our senior workers, who had been there for quite a number of years, and it was making -- it's so hard on them, they were complaining of bursitis, arthritis and increased musculoskeletal problems…
What about workers' compensation claims?
We didn't have to worry about workers' compensation claims with any of the USA Staffing personnel [i.e., workers hired through an outside contactor].
Thanks for your body, here's the bill

Workers' compensation laws make companies accountable for damage to the health of their employees when it happens at work. Ever conscious of their bottom line, corporate officials will try to minimize what they pay out for, say, a severed limb. But if it's the less visible damage caused by repetitive motion, stress and strain, they may well try to avoid responsibility altogether.

Atlanta attorney Bruce Carraway represents several poultry industry workers who suffer from repetitive motion injuries. He says Tyson's national headquarters has handed down a protocol that instructs in-house company clinics to treat nonemergency injuries for a minimum of 30 days before deciding whether to send the worker to a doctor.

Such deliberate delays can mean unnecessary suffering for the worker, but that's not all. The longer the gap between the report of an injury and its treatment by an outside doctor, the easier it is for the company to raise doubts about the injury's origin.

Carraway says the Tyson policy shows that "it's not just one Nurse Ratchett in one plant" who is responsible for inadequate treatment: "It's a systemic problem over their 70 or so plants around the country." (Regarding similar problems in the pork industry, Human Rights Watch labeled company clinics "a disciplinary arm of management.")

Georgia law says that in a workers' compensation case, injured employees who finally make it past the company clinic shall be treated by members of a company-approved list of doctors. "Company nurses are the gatekeepers who decide whether to refer an employee to a doctor, and the companies have a stranglehold on the choice of doctors the employee can see," Carraway says.

Companies often ignore their legal obligation to disclose the doctor list to a worker as soon as she reports an injury. Carraway cited the example of his client Carolyn Johnson, who works for Tyson in South Georgia. She complained of hand numbness to her supervisor last July but was not allowed to see a nurse until Aug. 31. And the nurse did not show her the list of doctors until Sept. 20 -- approximately two months after she should have been informed about available doctors.

And getting into a physician's office doesn't mean the worker is home free, says Carraway: "The employers generally pick the most conservative doctors available." By "conservative," he means those doctors least likely to conclude that a worker's pain resulted from on-the-job injury.

Frozen chickens and bare hands

Bruce Carraway also represents Maria Chavez, who suffered repetitive-motion injuries while working at a Tyson poultry plant. Although she has undergone wrist-replacement surgery on her left wrist, it is still in constant pain. And now her right wrist frequently goes numb.

Speaking through an interpreter, she told me that over time, her tasks have included making boxes, packing boxes with chicken and taking frozen chickens apart. I asked if she used knives or scissors to disassemble the chickens. "Neither," she said. "I used my bare hands."

She was also assigned to clearing out a large weighing scale that, she says, clamped down and cut into her already-injured wrist. The company nurse had her soak the wrist in hot water for 15 minutes and then return to work. Tyson is still refusing to comply with a court order to pay for her medicine, physical therapy and surgery.

Maria's husband Manuel worked at the same Tyson plant from 1991 until earlier this year, doing mostly heavy mechanical work. He said that for two or three months after he first reported severe back pain, the only treatment he received from the company nurses were hot patches and Tylenol.

He was finally permitted to have a local doctor treat the pain under Tyson's workers' compensation plan, but, he says, the company ordered him back to work too soon, telling the doctor he'd be put on light duty. In reality, he says, "I was put back on all the heavy jobs, whether I could do them or not." His doctor told the company flatly that he should not be doing such tasks.

What has been Tyson's response to its employee of 14 years? "They called me a drug addict," Manuel says, "saying I was faking the pain to get the painkillers."

Dr. Muhanna, the Gainesville neurosurgeon (who is not connected to any poultry-workers' organizations or legal cases against any of the companies), has seen what eventually happens to people who continue working in the plants despite their pain and their employer's intransigence: "They become washed out of their humanity. Lives and families are devastated. If the company can demoralize, harrass or degrade an injured worker, they will do it."

A national failure

Because Manuel Chavez is a U.S. citizen and Maria Chavez a permanent resident, they can feel slightly more secure in going up against the company than can undocumented workers. But their legal status doesn't shield them from the exploitation that pervades the industry. On that point, the Human Rights Watch report is unequivocal:
"All the abuses described in this report -- failure to prevent serious workplace injury and illness, denial of compensation to injured workers, interference with workers' freedom of association -- are directly linked to the vulnerable immigration status of most workers in the industry and the willingness of employers to take advantage of that vulnerability."
Rosalynn Evans of the Georgia Poultry Justice Alliance is finding inventive ways to help secure the rights of immigrants in a largely unorganized work force. "We're in the South, where to many people the word 'union' is like blasphemy," she says. Because fear of company retaliation deters workers from attending events that target those rights directly, the Alliance instead holds "health fairs."

In addition to blood-pressure checks and other simple medical services, the fairs feature information on immigration, citizenship, housing, the state's low-income health care plan, unions, labor rights and pending legislation. They have even gotten the federal government involved. "OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has been very helpful," says Evans.

But OSHA regulators are tightly limited in what they can do. The agency has sufficient staff and funding to inspect each workplace in America only once per century, and it has no national ergonomic standards to enforce. After dragging his feet for eight years, President Bill Clinton finally signed OSHA ergonomic standards in January 2001. One of the incoming Bush administration's first acts, however, was to replace the standards with "voluntary" guidelines.

In 2002, OSHA did find one way of reducing the official incidence of injuries in meat and poultry processing -- by changing the reporting form. By eliminating a column for musculoskeletal disorders and making other small changes, OSHA actually helped the industry achieve a 43 percent drop in its reported injury rate in a single year. Of course, as many workers as ever were still suffering the disorders.

Racing downhill

Another federal failure is the lack of a national workers' compensation system. Letting each state set its own regulations has resulted in a "race to the bottom" as states compete to attract business.

Missouri is home to a diverse meat industry -- pork, chicken, turkey and beef -- that is focused more on downstream processing than on slaughter. On Aug. 27, 2005, the state legislature passed a new workers' compensation law declaring that an injury is to be covered only if work was the "prevailing" factor in causing it; the previous law had used the phrase "significant contributing factor."

That change may sound like legal hairsplitting, but it could have profound consequences for meat workers with repetitive-motion injuries. Kansas City attorney Mike Stang says that no workers' comp cases have been litigated yet under the new law, but "if judges follow the new statute as written, an awful lot of injuries that would have been compensable by the companies on Aug. 26 suddenly became noncompensable on Aug. 27 -- the very same injuries."

The new law is being challenged on Constitutional grounds, one claim being that it doesn't provide equal protection for older workers. The ever-increasing pace and volume of work in industries like meat and poultry is turning the normal joint pains associated with aging into debilitating injuries.

Stang expects companies to argue under the new law that age, not work, is the "prevailing" factor: "Company nurses or doctors have a tendency to find arthritis more often than carpal tunnel."

State after state is entering this downhill race. In Oklahoma, another producer of both meat and poultry, the legislature passed a 2005 workers' compensation law that will make it harder on employees suffering repetitive-motion, "cumulative" and "aging-related" injuries on the job. It also allows companies to select the doctors who evaluate and treat injured workers.

The chairman of the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce expects the bill to "save up to $120 million "for Oklahoma employers and make our state more competitive for attracting jobs."

Across the country, big business appears intent on boosting the profits it's already squeezing out of the working people who put meat on America's dinner tables -- first by pushing their bodies beyond physical limits and then by handing them the medical bills.

It's a cruel double sacrifice that workers are forced to make. The corporate ethos that created the factory farm and brought misery to millions of chickens, hogs and cattle is turning out to have an equally disastrous effect on those who must work in America's meat processing plants.

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