The average American poultry plant today is found at the edge of a highway, near a company town, lights blazing and chimneys smoking at all hours. Outside, the ground is all concrete and feathers, and the air smells of fried chicken and bird feces. Inside, the plant is humid, loud, and cold — kept at low temperatures to better preserve the chicken.
Knives fly alongside powerful machinery, and everywhere are chemicals, like ammonia and chlorine, for cleaning, processing, and cooking. Floors are slick with blood, grease, and water to periodically clear away viscera and offal.
This is the workplace in which America's favorite meat is produced. Over the past half century, Americans have tripled their poultry consumption, and the $50 billion industry today employs a quarter of a million workers. This workforce is anything but stable: By some estimates, employee turnover in the sector has been higher than 100% in recent years.
The churn is due in part to grueling labor conditions in the plants, where low-wage workers repeat the same hanging, twisting, slicing, and hacking motions thousands of times a day to process fowl at ever-increasing speeds, as described in a new report from Oxfam America. The work leads to high rates of musculoskeletal disorders — five times that of other industries, according to the most recent numbers from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — as line workers’ hands swell and warp from the stress, leaving them unable to hold spoons, glasses, or their children.
While workplace injuries are reported and tracked by OSHA, critics of the industry say such numbers are unreliable estimates of the true scale of harm being done to worker health. Injured staff who should be at home healing may instead be asked to come in and sit in an office so they don’t appear on lost time logs, Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA legislative analyst now teaching at George Washington University, told BuzzFeed News.
In other instances, Monforton said, workers will be given painkillers at a nurses' station and sent directly back to work on the line. Oxfam also describes how employees who can no longer work due to their swollen hands are simply fired and replaced, which keeps lost-time injury rates low.
The report implicates the nation’s four top chicken producers — Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim’s, and Sanderson Farms — in perpetuating these harrowing, unsafe labor practices. A 2013 Southern Poverty Law Center report, a 2005 study from Human Rights Watch, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning Wall Street Journal investigation from 1994 all describe similar conditions, remarkably unchanged over the decades.
Of the four, Perdue and Tyson responded to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News, disputing the report’s accounts. Perdue said its company-wide lost-time rate due to injuries was significantly below the national average for all industries and that its rate of injuries reportable to the OSHA was half the average of the poultry industry. "We recognize our responsibility to provide a safe, productive and rewarding workplace," the company said.
Tyson said: "While we appreciate Oxfam America’s efforts, we don’t agree with everything in its report, which includes comments from former workers as well as union advocates and other interest groups known for their criticism of our industry. We believe we’re doing the right thing by our Team Members, however, we always push to do better."
The full statements from both companies are included below.
Tom Super, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, said in a statement, “Our employees are our most important asset and their safety is of paramount importance,” and called the industry’s record of improvement in health and safety “outstanding” over the past three decades. Oxfam vigorously disputes this.
As late as 1980, most chicken was sold whole, but by 2000, nearly 90% was processed into parts. Despite increased automation, for a live chicken to be turned into nuggets, tenders, Perdue Fun Shapes, or Pilgrim’s Honey-Dipt Strips, human hands must still slice, pull, debone, skin, coat, freeze, and package the products. Most of this kind of work has shifted from the home to the plant.
In 1994, Wall Street Journal reporter Tony Horwitz went undercover to work in poultry processing in the nation's "broiler belt" and described firsthand the dangerous line speeds and debilitating repetitive motions required to process each bird. Horwitz found workers caught in “a Dickensian time warp, laboring not just for meager wages but also under dehumanized and often dangerous conditions."
“Automation, which has liberated thousands from backbreaking drudgery, has created for others a new and insidious toil,” he wrote. “Work that is faster than ever before … and reduced to limited tasks that are numbingly repetitive, potentially crippling and stripped of any meaningful skills or the chance to develop them.”
In interviews with Oxfam America and BuzzFeed News, workers said little has improved since then. Instead, line speeds have increased, while the real value of wages has fallen 40% since the 1980s.
At the time of Horwitz’s writing, the upper limit of birds processed per minute was 91, up from the high 50s 15 years earlier. Today, the maximum permissible rate is 140 birds per minute, and the industry recently pushed for a higher limit of 170. Workers and advocates defeated the measure, and Oxfam's participation in that effort helped lead to the new report, according to Oliver Gottfried, Oxfam America senior advocacy and collaborations advisor.
Line speeds are set by the Department of Agriculture with an eye to food safety, rather than worker well-being. The rate refers to the speed at which machines eviscerate each carcass, and that number naturally determines human production speed down the line. More than 75% of poultry workers in line jobs reported cumulative trauma disorders in their hands and wrists, according to a 2013 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, the voices of the industry, say occupational injuries in the poultry sector's slaughter and processing workforce have fallen by 80% since 1994, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Oxfam maintains that this statistic is the result of changes to reporting methodology and consistent underreporting of injuries.
In 2002, Oxfam notes, OSHA introduced a new form for reporting workplace injuries that eliminated the column requiring reports of musculokeletal-disorder-type injuries. After the form’s introduction, the apparent incident rate fell “abruptly and dramatically."
In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics itself notes in a highlighted box on the front of its report that "[d]ue to the revised recordkeeping rule, the estimates from the 2002 survey are not comparable with those from previous years."
And increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries is far from the only danger in the life of a poultry plant worker.
In April, local Alabama media reported on the high rates of poultry plant injuries, beyond disabilities caused by repetitive motions. Federal inspectors fined the state's chicken processing plants more than $359,000 for labor violations over the past five years.
Among the more gruesome OSHA violations cited in Alabama was the following: In June 2011, Perdue Farms was fined $13,417 in part because “the firm did not properly disinfect a scissor lift that was coated with another employee's blood before telling other employees to use it.” Perdue Farms issued a statement at the time that said the plant was sold to Wayne Farms in December 2012 and cited issues were addressed.
This September, after a teenager lost a leg at a Case Farms plant in Ohio, the supplier faced a rare fine of $1.4 million for safety violations.
In a particularly dispiriting aspect of the job, poultry plant line workers are regularly denied breaks to relieve themselves, Oxfam found. As a result, workers report developing prostate pain and urinary tract infections from waiting until the end of their shifts to go — some urinate or defecate on themselves on the line. Nearly 80% of workers surveyed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2015 reported not being able to take bathroom breaks during the day when needed. The Wall Street Journal reported similar conditions in the '90s.
One worker in Springdale, Arkansas, said she wore Pampers so she wouldn’t have to leave her post to use the bathroom. Her overseer told her not to eat and drink so much water and food. “Myself and many, many others had to wear Pampers,” she told Oxfam. “It made me feel ashamed.”
Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson said in a statement that restroom breaks at the company’s plants are not restricted to scheduled work breaks and supervisors are instructed to "allow Team Members to leave the production line if they need to use the restroom.”
The grim conditions at processing facilities contrast with the booming market for their end product, with American consumers showing a voracious appetite for all things processed and avian. In the fast food industry, fried chicken sandwiches are a white hot category.
At Chick-fil-A’s recent opening of its flagship store in New York, customers braved the possibility of a Category 4 storm for a chance at a year's worth of free fried chicken sandwiches. The chain averaged $3 million in profits for each of its more than 1,800 locations in 2014, more than McDonald’s, or any of the competition for that matter.
To stay in the chicken game, the Golden Arches recently introduced a Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich this summer and credited it with driving sales in a quarter when the company returned to growth for the first time in years. KFC and Popeyes have been waging a “$5 chicken meal war” over the best value combo of legs, thighs, tenders, and bone-in pieces. Customers have rewarded the chains with increased sales.
While more fast food companies have recently promised cage-free hens and the elimination of antibiotics in their supply chains, they have not yet shown similar commitment to worker well-being. Chick-fil-A and Popeyes did not respond to requests for comment on the report. KFC declined to comment.
As the Fight for 15 movement to improve fast food labor conditions gains traction and the Department of Labor improves protections for farmworkers, Gottfried said he thinks the moment is right to bring the public's attention to conditions inside poultry plants. On Tuesday, House Democrats sent a letter to OSHA asking them to address hazards in the industry, stating that "enforcement from your agency is critical to protecting these workers."
In the short term, line worker turned organizer Bacilio Castro said he’s focused on gaining permission for workers to take more frequent restroom breaks in the plants and raising consumer awareness about conditions.
“We’re not asking you to stop eating chicken,” said Castro. “We’re simply asking to be treated as human beings and not as animals.”