Back in 1989, the New York Times reported that Americans’ growing appetite for chicken had put the squeeze on poultry processing plants, turning them into “a workplace that labor leaders consider among the most injurious in the nation.” Workers processed thousands of chickens a day on fast-moving conveyer belts, scooping out innards and deboning. The repetitive motions led to a rash of carpal tunnel problems. OSHA imposed some of the largest fines the agency had ever given out, and issued dire warnings that something had to change.

Nineteen years later, the warnings have gone unheeded, if the evidence unearthed by the Charlotte Observer is true. The paper’s six-part series, which examines “the human cost of bringing poultry to your table,” is just a heartbreaking litany of graphic injuries, abused workers, and racism.

The series focuses on House of Raeford, one of the nation’s top 10 meat processing companies. House of Raeford has been cited for 130 serious workplace safety violations since 2000—and yet, the Observer notes, “[i]f House of Raeford’s records are accurate, the company in recent years has operated some of the nation’s safest chicken and turkey plants.” Injury reporting is purely voluntary on the part of the company. Not surprisingly, when the paper compared company injury logs to reports from workers in neighborhoods surrounding the plants, the paper “confirmed 31 injuries serious enough to be recorded for regulators. In 12 of those cases, the injuries didn’t show up on logs.”

And the article reports this kicker: “[T]he government rewards companies that report low injury rates by inspecting them less often. And regulators rarely check whether companies are reporting accurately.”

Yeah, that makes sense.

When the New York Times did its report back in 1989, many workers in poultry plants were African American women. Now, many are immigrants from Mexico, often undocumented.

At one plant the Observer visited, there had been zero reports of musculoskeletal disorders recorded from July 2003 to April 2007, although two employees interviewed by the paper said they’d had surgery for carpal tunnel. Asked why there were no recorded injuries, the complex manager said he was unsure, but noted that a new machine to remove guts could be helping. Also, he said, “Hispanics are very good with their hands and working with a knife. We’ve gotten less complaints.”

Asked to elaborate, the manager said, “It’s more like a natural movement for them.” As a fiery piece from the Observer’s editorial page says,
“[F]eeble rules and lax oversight have made it easy for a dangerous industry to exploit illegal workers, underreport injuries and manipulate a regulatory system that essentially lets companies police themselves.”

One of the OSHA employees who was at the agency when it issued the big fines back in the late ’80s told the paper that today OSHA is leaving businesses to regulate themselves. He is currently on paid administrative leave.

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