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Poultry processing workers face injuries in Wisconsin, nationwide

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Sharp knives, moving machinery and chemicals pose health and safety risks to employees of poultry processing facilities. Here Tyson Foods employees process chicken at a plant in Springdale, Ark., in 2002.

On July 3, 2015, an employee of Tyson Foods was preparing for work at the line 4B tender clipping station at the company’s poultry processing plant in Sedalia, Missouri.

The stand slipped, pinching her middle finger between the frame and the processing line. Her finger was amputated between the nail-bed and first knuckle.

Two similar incidents in which a worker’s finger was caught in machinery, resulting in amputation, occurred in Wisconsin poultry processing plants between 2015 and Aug. 31, 2017, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The meat and poultry processing industry had the eighth-highest number of severe injury reports of all industries in 2015, according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report. And in 2016, poultry processing alone had a higher rate of injury and illness than logging, coal mining and oil and gas extraction, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wisconsin has dozens of small and medium-sized plants and major companies such as Brakebush Brothers, Jennie-O Turkey Store and Pilgrim’s, formerly known as Gold’n Plump. The largest Wisconsin poultry processors reported eight serious injuries since 2015, according to OSHA, including two finger amputations and one person who possibly succumbed to heat.

Although the meat and poultry processing industry’s injury rate has been dropping for years, it remains higher than average for manufacturing, and vast numbers of injuries never get reported in the first place, according to a 2016 GAO report.

“You can go back to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and read about the horrendous conditions in this particular industry,” said Lance Compa, senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and author of a 2005 Human Rights Watch report describing the alarming working conditions plaguing the industry.

“We knew that the meatpacking industry was inherently dangerous and risky,” Compa said — and it still is today.

For the over 300,000 poultry workers in the United States, clocking in doesn’t just mean facing these hazards. It also means another day of working at blistering speeds to satisfy the country’s colossal appetite for chicken. In 2016, the average American ate almost 90 pounds worth, and companies large and small collectively slaughtered more than eight billion birds the same year.

Nationwide, Tyson Foods, Inc. is the biggest and arguably most recognizable player in the industry: The company supplies poultry to Walmart, Kroger and Taco Bell, to name a few. Tyson does not have any poultry processing plants in Wisconsin but does operate plants in Green Bay and New London that produce finished food products, said Tyson public relations manager Derek Burleson. 

Tyson produced 174.8 million pounds of ready-to-cook chicken in 2017 and did just shy of $11.5 billion in chicken sales during fiscal year 2017, according to a Watt Poultry USA 2018 report and a Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting calculation, respectively. The company’s prominence makes it representative of many of the issues in poultry processing. 

For its part, Tyson has committed to expanding training for its workers and promoting safety in the workplace. The company saw a 22 percent reduction in its OSHA incident rate from 2016 to 2017. 

‘Blood splashed on your face’

One of Tyson’s four poultry processing plants in Missouri is in Sedalia, a town of about 21,500 people roughly 90 miles east of Kansas City. About 1,500 people work at the plant. The leviathan Tyson processing plant, hatchery and truck-loading station span roughly 90 acres. 

The plant first opened in 1994. The first big influx of immigrants to Sedalia followed a few years later, said immigrants rights advocate Elvira Satterwhite, who founded a local Spanish-language Lutheran church along with her husband in 1999. 

“When they first came,” Satterwhite said, “everybody was working at Tyson’s, because that's the company that brought them here with the promise of low-skilled jobs.”

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An employee of Tyson Foods processes chicken at a plant in Springdale, Ark., in this 2002 file photo. The poultry processing industry has a higher injury and illness rate on average than manufacturing overall, but safety has improved in recent years.

Outside, one can see — and smell — the chicken-stench-emitting, metal-pipe-bristling behemoth that makes up the sprawling plant.

Inside, at eight different departments, workers and machines are stationed in front of the lines, or the conveyor belts which move chicken carcasses along at a speedy clip.

Countless pieces of chicken go down the line: breasts, tenders and full birds. Workers are tasked with various jobs that turn live birds into meat for sale.

One of those workers is Jacqueline Menjivar, the daughter of Latin American immigrants. When she was little, Menjivar said, her mother, a Guatemalan immigrant, used to say that she never wanted her or her sister to follow in her footsteps and work at Tyson.

Now 20, she has spent a year-and-a-half there as an eviscerator, where she checks chicken carcasses for tumors, pulls the guts out of any dead birds that machines miss and is occasionally sprayed with blood and feces when intestines burst.

“The department I work at is one of the nastiest. It’s pretty gross,” Menjivar said.

“Say you have a ‘hang back.’ That means you have to pull the guts out manually with your hand out of the chicken. And sometimes if they’re full, their intestines might get poop all over everywhere. So it’s kind of nasty. And blood. You’ll just get blood splashed on your face.”

Tyson makes its employees wear protective gear to prevent injury, such as a smock, cotton gloves, mesh gloves and slip-resistant boots, according to Menjivar. Burleson confirmed the company provides protective gear to team members for specific job functions.

While this gear protects workers from injuries, wearing it can be unpleasant, one legal expert said.

“If you just think about yourself when it’s cold outside and you’re putting on big heavy boots, you’re keeping your feet warm, but you’re also sweating like crazy,” said Suzanne Gladney, an immigration attorney and founding member of the Migrant Farmworkers’ Assistance Fund, based in Kansas City, Missouri.

Gladney spent 39 years with Legal Aid of Western Missouri, where she practiced immigration law and travelled frequently to southwest Missouri to meet with poultry workers.

“Their body ... just sweats incredibly,” Gladney continued. “That kind of moisture buildup all day everyday causes its own skin issues. … The work they’re doing is unpleasant.”

And the smell is inescapable, Gladney said.

“It’s sort of in your pores, in your body, where you’re working, and it’s something that’s with you all the time,” Gladney said.

In the evisceration department, that smell is often strong enough to cause employees to seek transfer to other departments after working for two or three days, Menjivar said.

“A lot of people can’t stomach it,” Menjivar said.

 Burned, blinded and crushed

Injuries remain a problem throughout the industry, and the Sedalia plant is no exception: OSHA identified this plant as one of 9,400 workplaces nationwide that had more employees than average miss work or transfer to different jobs because of illness and injury in 2011. Tyson’s Sedalia plant was one of two poultry processing plants in Missouri identified, along with Cargill Meat Solutions in California, Missouri.

“Workers in meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants continue to face hazardous conditions, including sharp knives used in close quarters, slippery floors, and chemical exposures,” a 2017 GAO report says.

Jessica Leibler, an environmental health professor at Boston University who has been conducting research on workers in the animal and food industries for more than 10 years, said workers often get cuts from knives or sharp instruments of their own or from a co-worker who accidentally cuts them.

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Lance Compa is a senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y., where he teaches U.S. labor law and international labor rights. Compa says conditions at U.S. poultry plants pose risks to worker safety. “The line can go as fast as the human body can withstand — and even faster than the human body can withstand.”

“It’s inherently a dangerous work environment,” Leibler said.

Contributing to this danger are inconsistent worker training practices across the industry. Although Compa said OSHA might have guidelines about how to train employees, he said the agency has no legal requirements for how training should be handled.

Language barriers pose an additional challenge to proper training. In two plants investigated by the GAO in its 2016 report, workers spoke at least 20 different languages.

“There can be workers from countries all over the world, and they need training in the language that they speak,” Leibler said. “Sometimes that’s provided, sometime’s that’s not provided.”

At Tyson’s Sedalia plant, Menjivar said new hires spend a week watching videos about workplace safety. After about half a week, the worker will be assigned a “buddy” in his or her department to shadow for half a day, before watching more videos and completing some paperwork. After another day of shadowing, employees start working on the following Monday.

Menjivar said she felt prepared to start working after completing Tyson’s training. Burleson said the company has hired more than 260 trainers and 30 training coordinators since 2015.

Menjivar said that last year, the Sedalia plant went 12 months without an injury. Tyson did not confirm if this was true.

Severe workplace injuries — “crushed fingers or hands, amputations, burns or blindness” — can result from moving machine parts that workers use, according to a 2016 GAO report. The report mentioned one meat and poultry worker who lost most use of her arm after her apron “caught in a machine, which pulled her arm in before the machine could be turned off.”

Almost two-thirds of cutters and over half of all deboners and hangers reported being injured on the job, according to a report by the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center examining working conditions in that state’s poultry processing plants, where Tyson is based.

When Menjivar started working at Tyson, she said she worked in the evisceration department at a job where she cut the legs off chickens that were green or bloody.  The work had an adverse effect on her hands: when she lifted up her hand, it trembled visibly.

“My hands kind of shake because I wasn’t used to doing the same motion over and working with a knife for long periods of time,” Menjivar said, adding that the shakes have abated since she adjusted to her tasks.

Even though workers are plagued by injuries — sometimes chronic ones like shoulder, neck and back pain from the repetitive motions — employees are oftentimes motivated to continue working, Leibler said.

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“They need their income,” Leibler said. “They’re supporting families, they’re supporting extended family, spouses, children. They want to keep working.”

Bathroom, other breaks limited

The GAO also raised concerns about workers’ access to bathrooms in a 2017 report, saying workers in five states cited bathroom access as a concern but that they were afraid to report it to visiting OSHA inspectors. Denial of timely bathroom breaks can cause hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, constipation and abdominal pain.

According to the report, one meat and poultry industry representative said “some supervisors in meat and poultry plants deny bathroom access to maximize production output.”

Cindy Brown Barnes, the GAO’s director of education, workforce and income security issues, said although the GAO recommended that OSHA investigate bathroom access, OSHA lacks the resources to ask workers about bathroom access at each inspection.

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poultry injury rate

At Tyson, Burleson said team members can leave the line to use the restroom when needed, adding that some plants allow workers one 30-minute unpaid break or more per eight-hour shift, while others have two breaks of more than 20 minutes.

“Somebody will come take your spot, and you can go to the bathroom, get a drink,” said Menjivar. “And those are like, 10-minute breaks.”

'As fast as the human body can withstand — and even faster'

Many worker injuries can be traced to the “line,” the conveyor belt that zooms birds from station to station, taking them from live chickens to cut-up pieces. Tyson’s Sedalia plant kills around 200,000 birds per day, according to Menjivar. Tyson would not confirm this number.

Critics have called the fast pace of these lines one of the more dangerous parts of working in poultry processing. Menjivar said the Sedalia line moves at 148 birds per minute. Burleson did not confirm the speed at which Tyson operates its lines.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the agency responsible for regulating line speeds and currently caps the maximum number of birds a plant can process at 140 per minute. Processors can apply for waivers that allow for a speed of up to 175 birds per minute.

“I think the line speed is quite fast, in my view — too fast for a human worker to do the task that they need to do and keep up,” Leibler said.

On the line, repetitive, high-speed movements can combine with awkward body positioning and cold environments to put workers at risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder and injury, according to a 2016 GAO report.

The USDA regulates line speeds based on food safety, not worker safety. Maria Machuca, public affairs specialist for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services, said in an email that historically “line speeds were based on old work metrics that calculated the time and distance required for an inspector to walk between inspection stations” to check chicken carcasses. She added that modern verification tests have also been added to test for pathogens.

Burleson said Tyson’s policy and practices “encourage plant team members to stop the line at any time for worker or food safety issues.”

Line speeds have drawn the attention of activists and workers rights’ groups. Leibler said “there has been legislative efforts in the last few years to slow down the line speed, which have not been successful.”

Despite several groups petitioning in 2013 for OSHA to create a workers safety standard relating to animals processed per minute, the agency declined, citing insufficient resources.

This lack of regulation benefits companies’ bottom lines, Compa said.

“Getting the chicken out the door and getting as many chickens as you can in an eight-hour shift is the be-all, end-all of the operation,” Compa said. “That’s what companies want to do. The line can go as fast as the human body can withstand — and even faster than the human body can withstand.”

Satterwhite said she has heard that working conditions in Tyson have improved, mirroring the decline in reported injuries in past years.

But Compa said the industry remains focused on profits, not people.

“They'd rather maintain the fiction that they have really healthy and safe workplaces,” Compa said.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Dee J. Hall contributed to this story. It was produced for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting (www.investigatemidwest.org) by students in a Spring 2018 investigative reporting class at the University of Missouri School of Journalism taught by Sara Shipley Hiles. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools.

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