You need to be brave to work in the chicken business—you’re bombarded with bloody carcasses, stung by spurting chemicals, and menaced by gnashing blades that stop for nothing no matter how tired you are, or how much blood is spurting from your hand.
For decades, government regulators have bowed to Big Poultry’s multinational moguls, reluctant to penalize companies for inhumane factory production systems. Recently, however, federal authorities made an unprecedented move for workers’ health by citing the country’s largest poultry producer, Pilgrim’s Pride, for “medical mismanagement,” along with various safety violations. Advocates see the move as a promising step toward fixing an industry that burns through workers’ bodies as fast as it churns meat on the “kill line.”
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citation, which imposed $78,000 in proposed health and safety-related fines on a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Florida, management systematically failed to refer injured and sick workers to proper outside medical treatment, “which could result in health hazards [like]…prolonged healing, exacerbation of pain, and limited recovery” from injuries on the job.
In February, a worker lacking a proper safety shield reportedly received chemical burns when handling a water chiller, resulting in “a caustic liquid sprayed back in his face.” A lack of facial protection also exposed a workers’ eyes to a “chemical splash” and “zoonotic diseases” during mass bird slaughtering. The management also botched an on-site pollution monitoring test and failed to record 16 work-related injuries or illnesses in 2015.
The advocacy group Oxfam stated that OSHA’s investigation “confirms what Oxfam has heard from poultry workers across the country: workers in poultry plants are subjected to dangerous conditions that are easily preventable.”
Every day, low-wage poultry factory workers risk getting slashed and throttled by machines and burned by chemicals, scrambling to cut and pack up to 140 carcasses per minute. The industry claims it upholds strong safety standards and is improving through technology. But Oxfam’s recent joint investigation with Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center revealed how another major chicken producer, Tyson, has upgraded Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for the neoliberal economy, with brutal pressure to hit hyper-mechanized production quotas, often at the expense of workers’ health.