Thirty years ago the poultry industry had a well-earned reputation for poor worker safety, and though the trend lines have changed significantly in the last two decades, federal regulators want to do more to reduce injury and illness on the job.
“We acknowledge that there was a serious need to improve worker safety rates … and the poultry industry is committed to continual improvements in the years ahead,” said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation based in Gainesville.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s new Regional Emphasis Program aims to improve worker safety through outreach, education and enforcement efforts.
This includes training sessions, public service campaigns, news releases, inspections of production operations and working conditions, and safety and health programs. The program, however, does not represent a change in regulations or new requirements.
According to a recent OSHA press release, “Workers employed in the poultry industry face many serious hazards that can lead to serious injury, illness and death, including dangerous equipment, musculoskeletal disorders, infectious pathogens, high noise levels and hazardous chemicals.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that poultry workers suffer serious injuries at higher rates than workers in most other private-sector industries and also experience more work-related illnesses.
Higher incidences of days missed, hearing loss and respiratory conditions are also reported.
These numbers don’t surprise Cristian Ramos, a student at the University of North Georgia who worked in local poultry plants for more than five years between 2007 and 2013.
He said talk among workers about dangerous conditions and frequent injuries were common during his employment.
“You could hear people complaining (about injuries), especially when you are a line worker,” he said. “The biggest safety hazard falls on them. Not only the people in the deboning area, or cutting the wings, but also all the way at the beginning where people are hanging the chickens.”
Federal regulations allow plants to operate processing line speeds at up to 140 birds per minute. A proposal to raise that number to 175 birds was scrapped last year.
But even the current speed is worrisome for some workers, Ramos said.
“They do try to pressure you to break safety rules to keep the line moving,” he added. “They don’t want downtime.”
OSHA inspection reports from 2011 reveal citations and fines issued to the Mar-Jac hatchery in Lula for “serious” violations regarding worker falls.
Fieldale Farms, meanwhile, has had a number of inspections in recent years at plants in Gainesville, Murrayville and Cornelia, according to OSHA reports.
Fieldale was cited for several violations totaling tens of thousands of dollars in penalties. At least one inspection case is still ongoing.
And a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Carnesville, located northeast of Gillsville and Commerce, was inspected for safety in September. That case also is still open.
“OSHA safety inspections are common in the poultry industry,” Giles said. “Since 2012, 481 OSHA inspections have been carried out in poultry processing facilities nationwide, including 151 year to date in 2015.”
OSHA officials have expressed concern that injury rates are underreported in the poultry industry because many workers are immigrants who do not speak English or understand the protections afforded them.
Ramos agreed that injuries are likely underreported, and said that many times workers hid accidents for fear of losing their job.
“People would not complain, for the most part, unless they were bleeding to death, unless it was obvious,” he added.
Ramos, however, said he did witness some small changes for the better before leaving the industry to return to school, including an effort by top poultry plant officials to track down employees who hid or did not properly report injuries.
Giles said OSHA’s reporting on worker safety in the poultry industry is misleading because it compares apples and oranges.
“Perhaps a more fair comparison would be poultry processing to all manufacturing,” he said.
In 2014, poultry processing’s incidence rate for all recordable injuries and illnesses was 4.3 per 100 full-time workers, while all of manufacturing was 4.0.
The injury and illness rates for poultry workers dropped from 22.7 in 1994, a better than 80 percent reduction.
And higher rates of missed work days are reported among landscapers, hospital workers and those employed at ski resorts, for example.
“The poultry industry’s rate of improvement over the past 20 years was greater than overall manufacturing,” Giles said. “This has been achieved through a focused and sustained effort by the poultry industry to improve ergonomic practices, employee training and appropriate medical intervention strategies.”