To Make a Tender Chicken

Poultry Workers Pay the Price

Once you know about working conditions in a typical poultry processing plant, you may never eat chicken again.


This article is from the July/August 2002 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the July/August 2002 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Not unlike The Jungle—Upton Sinclair's classic 1906 exposé of the meatpacking industry—Barbara Goldoftas's account of hazardous conditions in poultry processing plants, published in Dollars & Sense in September 1989, was a chilling wake-up call. Just after the article appeared, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined two of the companies she mentioned for widespread health and safety violations.

Although slaughterhouses are an extreme example, some of the conditions Goldoftas described can be found throughout the economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that both the number and rate of work-induced illnesses and injuries have declined since the early 1990s, but OSHA itself has found that employers frequently underreport. Moreover, employers have intensified pressure on workers to speed up and cut corners, while minimizing or ignoring their complaints. The federal government hasn't helped matters. The Clinton White House promoted voluntary cooperation by employers; under Clinton, OSHA performed fewer annual inspections than during any previous administration. Today, according to the AFL-CIO, the United States ranks tenth among 15 top industrial nations in the rate of workplace fatalities, and 13th in per-citizen spending on workplace safety and health.

In her article, Goldoftas highlighted how poultry workers were suffering from disorders caused by repetitive motion. As we know, these debilitating disorders afflict not only production workers but also cashiers, typists, health-care aides, and many other types of employees. In 1990, the first Bush administration proposed creating ergonomics standards to help address the problem, and OSHA spent ten years devising a plan. The standards, finally issued in November 2000, met with hysterical opposition from business leaders and were quickly killed by Congress. Current President Bush has announced plans to develop voluntary guidelines instead. That doesn't bode well for the estimated 600,000 workers who are seriously hurt by repetitive motion, heavy lifting, and poor job design each year. Still, public awareness about repetitive stress injuries is far more widespread than when Goldoftas' article first appeared.

The poultry industry's record remains poor. As John Zorabedian reports, poultry processor Perdue made employees pay the price—literally—for safer working conditions. Now Perdue has to pay them back.

Also see "The Short Run: Chicken Chicanery" in this issue.

—Tami J. Friedman

In 1983 Donna Bazemore took the best-paying job she could find in northeastern North Carolina—gutting chickens for Perdue Farms. At first she slit open carcasses; later she became a "mirror trimmer" on the night shift. As the birds moved by on the assembly line, a federal inspector next to her examined their far sides in a mirror. He pointed out unacceptable tumors, bruises, and other "physical defects," which Bazemore sliced off with huge scissors.

While the job paid better than the minimum wage she might have earned elsewhere, the conditions were grueling. Bazemore worked in 90-degree heat as the chickens sped by, 72 to 80 a minute. Strict work rules limited bathroom breaks. The primarily black, female work force faced sexual harassment and racism from the white male supervisors. And the women endured a slew of medical problems, ranging from skin rashes to cuts to swollen, painful hands and arms.

Several months after becoming a mirror trimmer, Bazemore noticed that she had no feeling in several fingertips. The numbness progressed to pains shooting up the inside of her arm—symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, a potentially disabling disorder caused by overly repetitive movements.

Even after surgery, the trouble continued. "I had no strength in my hands," she says. "I couldn't do the littlest tasks around the house, like sweep a floor or stir for long periods of time. I couldn't write six or seven words without having to rest my hand."

Bazemore is one of thousands of workers hurt by their jobs in poultry processing plants—the polite term for slaughterhouses. "Work in poultry plants by every stretch of the imagination is horrible," says Artemis (her full name). She has worked for two different companies in northern Arkansas, a region thick with poultry plants. "It's stressful, demanding, noisy, dirty. You're around slimy dead bodies all the time. And it's very dangerous."

According to its trade journal, Broiler Industry, the industry makes "staggering" profits. Demand for poultry has grown steadily for decades, and U.S. consumers now eat more chicken and turkey than red meat. Production increased by 67% in just 10 years, from 12 billion pounds in 1977 to about 20 billion pounds in 1987.

The industry's growth and profitability have in large part come at the expense of poultry workers who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, suffer twice the average private-sector rates of illness and injury. As poultry processing expanded, it grew increasingly concentrated. Firms converted to large-scale assembly-line operations, ultimately speeding up and deskilling individual jobs. The resulting breakneck pace and repetitive motions tax workers' hands and arms—and can ultimately cripple them.

A Chicken in Every Pot

The poultry industry of 50 years ago hardly resembled the one that ConAgra, Tyson Foods, and Perdue now dominate. Small farmers raised most chickens and turkeys, sending them to private, local slaughterhouses. The birds were smaller and more expensive than those sold today. People ate less poultry and usually bought it whole.

In the 1940s, poultry scientists created new breeds of birds that grew faster and did not waste away in crowded conditions. The innovations made large-scale operations both feasible and efficient. In the 1940s and 1950s, giant "integrators," which already owned slaughterhouses, animal feed mills, and hatcheries, bought out the small chicken farms as well.

Since the 1960s, processing has undergone a similar transformation. Mechanizing parts of their operations enabled firms to increase the volume and size of their plants. The industry also grew more consolidated. In 1977, the top four firms slaughtered just 20% of all chickens killed in the United States. By 1987, their portion had nearly doubled to 38%. During that same period, poultry companies used the gimmick of name-brand poultry to secure a larger share of the retail market. They began selling directly to the fast-food and retail outlets, and they introduced new, expensive products that required further processing.

A typical poultry plant now processes tens of thousands of chickens each day. One by one, live birds are hung by the feet on a moving line of hooks called shackles and mechanically stunned, decapitated, and scalded to remove the feathers. They are quickly gutted and then cut into parts, packaged whole, or sped through a deboning line.

Throughout the plant, workers perform simple, highly repetitive jobs. They draw out guts, pull livers, cut wings and gizzards, pop thigh bones. Most do a single, defined movement—cutting, slicing, lifting birds onto the shackles, or pulling breast meat from the bone with their fingers. They may repeat this motion 25, 40, 90 times a minute, hour after hour. "They treat you as if you were a machine, plugged in, running on electricity," says Rita Eason, another former Perdue worker.

Like Bazemore, many workers do their jobs in conditions of extreme heat or cold. Processing involves both ice and scalding water, and plant temperatures reportedly vary from 26 to 95 degrees. Bazemore's department lacked ventilation, despite the heat, and in other departments, she says, "people wear three, four, five pair of socks and long underwear all year. And they're still cold."

Although the work is fast and hard, the companies allow few scheduled breaks, usually just lunch and two 10- or 15-minute rests each day. At many plants, a strict disciplinary system keeps workers in line—literally. Returning late from a break or missing part of a day, regardless of the reason, brings an "occurrence" or "write-up." After a certain number of write-ups, workers are "terminated."

"If you had to go to the bathroom more than once in two or three hours, they would threaten to write you up," says Brenda Porter, who worked at a Cargill plant in Buena Vista, Georgia, for 12 years.

Afraid to ask permission to leave the line, or forbidden to leave, workers sometimes urinate, vomit, and even miscarry as the chickens pass by. Although it has been nine years since Eason worked at Perdue, she remembers clearly seeing "a grown woman stand on the line and urinate right on herself. She was too scared to move. But then she got so cold she walked out and went home."

A constant risk of illness and injury compounds the harsh day-to-day conditions in the plants. Common ailments include warts, infections from bone splinters, and rashes from the chlorine water used to wash birds contaminated with feces. Workers often lose fingernails and toenails, and they suffer injuries from the knives, saws, and machinery.

The speed and repetition of the work cause the most serious problems. Performing the same action for hours and hours makes poultry workers highly susceptible to debilitating conditions of the nerves, muscles, and tendons. These cumulative trauma disorders, also called repetitive motion injuries, occur among a wide range of workers, from letter sorters to textile workers to typists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the disorders are the fastest-growing occupational disease of the 1980s.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, which damaged Bazemore's arms, is the most severe such disorder. When the tendons passing though a narrow channel in the wrist—the carpal tunnel—are overused, they swell and press on the nerve that controls feeling in the hand. The result can be painful—and permanently disabling.

Although Mary Smith only worked at Cargill for seven months, her brief stint at the Buena Vista plant left her with hands that hurt day and night. She started in March 1988, trimming bruises and tumors from chicken skin. The pain began in June. "At first they would swell. The nurse said it was normal; I had to get used to the job," she says. "They started hurting real bad and getting numb, especially at night. I'd wake up, shake them, lay them on the pillow. It didn't do no good."

She has not worked since last September but, says Smith, "I still have problems holding things. It hurts to wash dishes, take clothes out of the machine. My arm hurts at night, hurts all day. I get so frustrated sometimes, I feel like just cutting it off." She is hardly alone. At least 14 of her co-workers have had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. Union stewards at the plant estimate that more than a third of the workers there have trouble with their hands.

Poultry Workers Organize

Three-fourths of poultry processing happens in Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina. The warm climate allows year-round production, and the poultry firms also prefer the southern labor climate—cheap and largely unorganized.

For many workers, poultry jobs are steadier and easier than field work. And the companies pay more than convenience stores and fast-food joints, usually between $4.50 and $6.00 an hour.

The price of the job, though, is high—a worker's safety and health—and even in anti-union areas, workers are starting to organize. At the Cargill plant in Buena Vista, Georgia, workers say the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which survived a recent decertification drive there, gives them a say about their health. "A lot of people are afraid to speak up, afraid to get fired," says Felton Toombs, who was fired three months after having carpal tunnel surgery last year. "You need someone to speak up for you when something goes wrong." In northeastern North Carolina, the Center for Women's Economic Alternatives (CWEA) teaches workers that they should not have to choose between their job and their health. Organizers offer clinics about repetitive motion injuries, and they have helped hundreds of Perdue workers get medical care and workers' compensation. Workers are now asking to be sent to the doctor, says former Perdue worker Bazemore. "A couple months ago, they were losing fingers and arms and they would never complain."

'They Wear Out'

While gutting and cutting chickens were never easy, poultry work became even harder as the industry expanded. During the 1960s and 1970s, firms increased their productivity by replacing workers with machines. A skilled worker, for example, could slaughter about 66 birds a minute, while a killing machine beheads five times as many — five a second. To meet the recent rise in demand, the plants sped up production, and workers now work at a faster pace for longer hours. Between 1975 and 1985, output per worker increased by 43%.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates slaughterhouses, facilitated the speed-up. Federal inspectors check each bird before and after slaughter, working no faster than the rate set by the agency. Since 1979, USDA engineers have pared down the inspection time allowed for each bird. Upper limits jumped from 57 to 70 birds a minute for two inspectors, even reaching 91 for some high-speed plants.

Safe-food advocates worry about contaminated birds and rising rates of salmonella infections, but the speed-ups have also been critical to the 150,000 workers who process poultry. The changes constituted a "policy shift toward de facto deregulation," says Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower support group in Washington, D.C. that has worked with former USDA inspectors. "The idea was to keep the USDA seal of approval but get inspectors out of the way of faster line speeds."

The agency simply determines how quickly inspectors can work "comfortably," says Patrick Burke of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "They wear out if the rate's too fast." Asked about how the speed-up might affect other workers, whose "comfort" is not monitored, Burke says that the USDA "can't legally do anything with plant employees."

The new, lucrative products of the 1980s—filleted breasts, poultry patties, chicken nuggets—have made poultry work even more physically demanding. Workers who cut or pull the meat from the bone use quick, repetitive motions that are particularly trying on their wrists and hands. Even Cargill spokesman Greg Lauser acknowledges that the "more intensive processing operations tend to have a greater incidence of repetitive motion injuries."

Undue Concern

Many workers suffering from repetitive motion injuries have a hard time getting treatment because of hostile management, untrained nurses, and doctors who know little about their medical problems. "When you tell people you're hurting, they don't really believe you," says Perdue worker Rose Harrell, who was bounced from doctor to doctor before being diagnosed with carpal tunnel. "I told the plant manager that I didn't mind working, but my hands hurt. 'What you telling me for,' he said. 'I can't stop your hands from hurting.'"

Workers and union officials at plants throughout the South describe similar circumstances. "At Cargill [in Buena Vista] when a worker notices her hands are hurting, she'll be given Advil and told that she's just breaking them in," says Jamie Cohen, health and safety director for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents the plant's work force. "The previous nurse apparently even told some people, 'Go back and take the pain like the rest.' "

Workers also report being fired after they developed "hand problems." "The procedure is to keep you from going to the doctor instead of sending you to the doctor," says Zelma Ghant, a union steward at the Buena Vista plant who accompanies workers to the nurse. "Instead of facing the problems, the company tries to scare people. When a person is persistent, they find a way to terminate them, to set an example for the rest: if you don't keep quiet, this will happen to you."

Ignoring cumulative trauma disorders can aggravate them, though. Untreated, temporary damage can become permanent, and even a short delay can make a difference. Companies could help limit damage by giving employees less strenuous tasks or letting them rotate jobs. Instead, some workers report being given work that only makes their injuries worse.

Unfortunately, poultry companies have a built-in incentive to ignore injuries—it keeps workers' compensation costs down. Until recently they showed very low rates on their OSHA "200 logs," where they record work-related injuries and illnesses. The disorders are "underreported," says Roger Stephens, federal OSHA's sole ergonomist, who studies how the design of a workplace affects workers. "The reporting just doesn't go on."

Benny Bishop, plant manager of Southland Poultry in Enterprise, Alabama, says there are "few injuries" to report. "Every injury that has been reported has been recorded," he claims. RWDSU representative Linda Cromer, who worked on a recent union drive there, agrees that the past five years of Southland's OSHA logs show "virtually no repetitive motion injuries listed." But, she adds, "we hear about it on every house call."

In a written statement sent to a congressional hearing on cumulative trauma disorders in early June, Perdue Farms claims that "grossly inaccurate media reports have created undue concern" about these disorders. Yet an internal memo from the Perdue personnel department this past February tells a different story. In response to a worker's complaint, it states that it is "normal procedure for about 60% of our work force" at the Robersonville plant to go to the nurse every morning to get pain killers and have their hands wrapped.

Perhaps in an effort to shake its reputation of ineffectualness, OSHA recently levied huge fines against meatpackers and poultry companies for failing to report repetitive motion injuries. But on both the federal and state level, OSHA has been slow to respond to the cause of repetitive motion injuries—the very nature of poultry work.

"I think there will have to be limits on the physical demands employers can make of employees," says Steve Edelstein, a North Carolina attorney who handles compensation cases for injured workers. "People shouldn't have to feel pain every day just to make a living." He says that OSHA historically overlooked the design of assembly-line work, focusing instead on safety standards and a narrow definition of illness and injury.

Companies could make some changes immediately, says Sarah Fields-Davis, director of the Center for Women's Economic Alternatives, a worker advocacy group in Ahoskie, North Carolina. "Redesigning tools and keeping scissors sharp so people don't have to use their backs to cut doesn't cost that much," she says. "Neither does rotating workers or giving them longer breaks."

Former Perdue worker Donna Bazemore believes that companies like Perdue should retrain workers disabled by poultry work. After a woman develops carpal tunnel, they should "realize that it's going to he hard for [her] to make a living," she says.

"We're not advocating that Perdue leave," says Fields-Davis. "We just want the company to become more responsive to—and responsible for—the people who are making them rich."

Barbara Goldoftas is currently completing a book on the environment and economic development in the Philippines. She teaches nonfiction writing at Wellesley College.
Tami J. Friedman is a co-editor of Dollars & Sense.