The document was released last week by the Southern Poverty Law Centre and the Alabama Appleseed Centre for Law and Justice.
It claims that out of 302 production line staff interviewed, 72% had experienced a significant work-related injury, from deep cuts and debilitating hand pain to chemical burns and respiratory problems.
Despite being required to log all significant work-related injuries under US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, employers accidentally or intentionally undercount them, the report claims. They also go underreported by employees because they fear retaliation, it states.
Fear of being fired
Two thirds of workers surveyed for the report believed workers were scared or reluctant to report injury, with more than three quarters attributing this to fear of being fired.
Even so, official OSHA figures report a 5.9% injury rate for poultry processing workers in 2010. This was 50% higher than the 3.8% injury rate for all US workers, claim the paper’s authors.
‘Unsafe at these speeds: Alabama’s poultry industry and its disposable workers’ asserts that the main reason for these injuries is that workers are forced to endure “punishing line speeds”.
More than three quarters of the workers surveyed in the report said line speeds made them feel less safe, made their work more painful and caused more injuries.
Small teams of workers are required to hang, fold, gut and slice more than 100 carcasses a minute for eight hours or more with few breaks, it states. In addition, they are not given time to sharpen knives and so must use dull knives, leading to muscle strain as they have to use greater force to cut meat and bone.
Out of 266 workers answering questions about bathroom breaks for the report, nearly eight in 10 said they were not allowed to take breaks when needed.
"... workers speaking freely outside of work describe what one called a climate of fear within these plants. It’s a world where employees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor," states the report.
It claims USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposals to raise line speeds from 70-140 birds a minute to 175 birds a minute would only serve to make conditions worse. The proposal to change existing rules appears in FSIS’ Modernisation of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, which was issued on January 27, 2012.
The USDA plans would also leave only one federal inspector on each line, with many inspection duties turned over to factory employees.
Consumers face increased risks
As a result, consumers would face increased food safety risks as inadequate cover would lead to failures to follow basic food safety and hygiene practices, the paper claims.
Concluding its assessment, the report’s authors call on the USDA to withdraw its proposal to increase poultry line speeds.
They advocate that OSHA should curb the incidence of repetitive strain disorders at poultry plants by limiting line speeds and the number of repetitions required by workers and enforcing bathroom and rest breaks. It should also require other ergonomically sound practices, they argue.
Bill of Rights
They also demand that Alabama should follow Nebraska in enacting a Poultry Workers Bill of Rights to give greater power and protection to staff, including better scope to claim injury compensation.
Commenting on the report, Michael Patoka, policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, a non-profit research and educational organisation that campaigns for health, safety and the environment, said in a blog posting : "As this report demonstrates, poultry processing poses unacceptable dangers even at current line speeds.
"The USDA should withdraw its ill-considered proposal and come up with ways to 'modernise' poultry inspection that address, rather than aggravate, these problems."
The Alabama poultry processing industry produces more than one billion broilers a year, representing 75,000 jobs and 10% of Alabama’s economy, with an annual value of $2.5bn, according to the report.