“Serious violations” in poultry plant put workers at risk

Official company statistics likely undercount the actual rate of injury and illness, as companies employ a variety of tactics to suppress reports. This Pilgrim’s plant in Elberton, GA boasted a safety streak of over 68 million hours without a lost time injury—even though OSHA has repeatedly fined Pilgrim’s for serious violations. Photo: Tom Fritzsche

In October, Oxfam America launched a new campaign that aims to improve the lives of the roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US.

They earn low wages, suffer high rates of injury and illness, and often work in a climate of fear. For information about the challenges facing poultry workers, please explore our interactive site, Lives on the Line, sign the petition, or read our full report.

On even the best day, a poultry plant poses dangers to workers: it’s cold (around 40 degrees), it’s loud (machines are constantly running), it’s humid and slippery and awash with chemicals, and workers stand shoulder to shoulder holding knives and scissors and moving quickly and relentlessly.

Given these hazards, it’s vital for poultry companies to take every possible measure to safeguard the health and safety of their workers.

And yet, it happens, again and again, that many companies cut corners rather than invest in safety. Whenever the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) visits a poultry plant, it often finds serious violations for a variety of hazards.

Last week, OSHA released findings from an investigation into a plant in Florida, owned by Pilgrim’s Pride, the second largest poultry company in the country. They found 14 “serious” violations and several less than serious. Among the serious violations were:

  • Workers in pain, ill, or injured were not referred to the doctor when necessary. This is particularly troubling when workers are at risk of repetitive strain injuries and musculoskeletal disorders; these are the most common threats to poultry workers’ health, and the hardest to prove and treat.

The statement notes, “The employer failed to make timely appropriate medical referrals for employees with injuries related to chronic and acute exposures and incidents, heavy lifting and persistent and continuous pain… The employees are exposed to ergonomic risk factors such as but not limited to rapid and repetitive hand and wrist motions, repetitive heavy lifting, forceful hand exertions, static postures and cold temperatures.”

An OSHA official in Florida, Brian Sturtecky notes, “Having employees visit a first-aid room for ‘in-house treatment' over a course of weeks or months without a referral to a physician can lead to additional long-lasting injuries for employees.”

  • Workers were unnecessarily exposed to amputation hazards. Poultry workers suffer amputations at three times the national average rate.
  • Floors were dangerously wet and slippery. In one area, “the ladies restroom had stagnant water and was always wet, exposing employees to slip and fall hazards.”
  •  Workers were not properly informed about how to follow procedures when cleaning machines to prevent them from suddenly starting.

These findings, while shocking, are not surprising. Pilgrim’s has a long history of violations; at one point recently, OSHA added the company to its “Severe Violator” program, which is designed for companies that have repeatedly violated health and safety laws. Despite its record, Pilgrim’s has faced just over $300,000 in fines since 2011, a miniscule amount for a company with over $700 million in profits in 2014 alone.

Marta, who works at a Pilgrim’s plant in Texas, reports that she and her co-workers feel like robots on the line, and are rarely treated with respect and regard for their safety. “We’re human beings who feel, and hurt, and we work the best we can. But it’s not enough for them. They demand more and more… They demand more than you can do.”

Naomi Tsu, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), says it’s important that OSHA has documented that the plant refused proper medical treatment. “By issuing the first-ever citation to a poultry plant for failing to refer its injured workers to appropriate medical care, OSHA has taken an important first step to end this dangerous and degrading treatment. The industry should now have a clear understanding of the legal standard they must meet. OSHA must vigorously enforce these worker protections.”

When asked to name the one thing that she would like company managers and executives to do, Marta, doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Put themselves in the place of the worker… And stop thinking that we’re machines.”

See what it takes to bring chicken to your plate—and then tell Big Poultry to treat its workers right. Sign the petition calling on the top four companies to provide a safe working environment, offer fair pay and benefits, and give their workers a voice.

Experience the interactive story

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