Alabama and several other southern states have a thriving chicken industry that represents a healthy percentage of the annual GDP, especially in the Deep South from Georgia to Louisiana where chicken production rockets year after year. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the past, this unrestrained growth is accompanied by a corporate push to loosen the rules and regulations that protect the environment and keep factory workers relatively safe and healthy, as more recent worker fatalities demonstrate.
In Mississippi, Southern Hens Inc., a poultry processor with facilities in Moselle, was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations (OSHA) for 43 safety and health violations after the death of a worker who slipped and fell into an unguarded screw conveyer while cleaning it. An investigation triggered by the death uncovered a spectrum of violations that included “exposing workers to shock, struck-by, burn, crushing, tripping, falling, slipping and amputation hazards,” improperly guarded and unsafe machinery, failing to provide workers with proper protective equipment, and numerous others, which posed a “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result.”
“Employers cannot allow workers to be exposed to unguarded equipment or other workplace hazards,” said Clyde Payne, OSHA’s area director in Jackson, Miss. “It is imperative that management take immediate action to eliminate the hazards identified in this inspection before another worker is injured or killed.”
Tuesday OSHA announced that another on-the-job worker death at a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Canton, Georgia, resulted in numerous safety violations for that company as well. The agency said that the worker became caught while trying to remove a piece of cardboard from an unguarded hopper, a large tapered container usually used to hold grain.
The worker’s death triggered an OSHA inspection of the plant that found four serious safety violations for improperly guarded and hazardous equipment, failure to conduct required safety inspections, and other violations. Additionally, OSHA inspectors found two repeat violations concerning unsafe equipment and improperly protected electrical cords and two other-than-serious safety violations.
“Establishing safety and health programs that identify and remove hazards before a worker gets injured or sick goes to the very core of providing a safe and healthful workplace,” said Bill Fulcher, director of OSHA’s Atlanta-East Area Office. “In this case, a tragic loss resulted from equipment that could easily have been guarded.”
Sadly, instead of doing the right thing and investing some of its growth and soaring profits into safer, more humane factories, some chicken processors are doing just the opposite by pushing legislators and regulators to pass bills and loosen the rules that already go largely ignored.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to enact a new regulation that will actually allow poultry companies to increase the speed of the processing line – from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175.”
Nearly three-quarters of the poultry plant workers interviewed by the SPLC said they had suffered significant on-the-job injuries or illness. Very few of these low-wage workers have health insurance, and the plants often use threats of termination or worse if workers complain or even seek treatment.
“Poultry workers often endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems – tell-tale signs of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and other ailments that flourish in these plants,” the SPLC said in a recent report about Alabama’s poultry industry titled “Unsafe at These Speeds.”
The SPLC explains that OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect” workers in poultry processing plants specifically. Moreover, according to the firm, “Workers cannot bring a lawsuit to prevent hazardous working conditions or even to respond to an employer’s retaliation if they complain of safety hazards or other abusive working conditions. Many live in rural areas and have no other way to make a living, which means they must accept the abuse or face economic ruin.”