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CHICKEN: HOW SAFE?
Part 2 - CHICKEN: AT WHAT COST?
For workers, price can be high - pain, crippled hands
SECOND OF TWO PARTS
Click here for Part 1
The Atlanta Journal Constitution
By Scott Bronstein - Staff writer
June 2, 1991- Page D/1
Second of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken. Today's main story examines the high incidence of often job-ending injuries (particularly tendinitis and carpal runnel syndrome) among poultry processing workers. Thousands of poultry workers have required surgery as a result of damage to nerves and tendons in wrists or hands. No one is sure how many poultry workers are being injured because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not regularly monitor repeated trauma cases or accidents involving knives, saws or other machinery. GAINESVILLE, Ga. - Every seven seconds for eight hours a day, Maria Reyes picks up a 10-pound bag full of quartered chicken legs and twists it closed with both hands. Then, with a deft circling motion, she seals it with a clasp in her right hand - about 80 pounds every minute, 4,800 pounds every hour, 19 tons of chicken every day.
By the end of her week at the Mar-Jac poultry plant in Gainesville, the self-proclaimed Chicken Capital of the World, the pain shoots up both of her arms and a 2-inch-long knot rises along her right wrist. She wears a splint. Her sister, Ana-Maria, 46, who fills and seals giblet bags, has had a similar knot on her right wrist for more than a year.
"It hurts when I sweep, or try to hold things, even when I do the dishes," said Miss Reyes, 35. Her sister chimed in, "I can't raise my arm above my head because it hurts so badly. My daughter has to help me put on my hairnet each morning."
To keep pace on poultry production lines moving twice as fast as a decade ago, the human components of the highly automated poultry processing machinery, such as Miss Reyes, her sister, and her niece, Ana-Isabel, must move their arms in quick staccato fashion to slice, wrap, cut, and, on occasion, rip apart raw chicken with their hands.
The repetitive motions often cause what are called repeated trauma disorders. They range from simple tendinitis in the wrists or shoulders to carpal tunnel syndrome, which can leave a worker virtually crippled, requiring corrective surgery.
Thousands of poultry workers across Georgia and other poultry states have required carpal tunnel surgery as a result of damage to nerves and tendons in wrists or hands. About 5 percent of the injuries result in permanent disabilities, federal safety officials said.
No one today can be sure exactly how many poultry workers are being injured because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not regularly monitor repeated trauma cases or accidents involving knives, saws or other machinery. But repetitive motion injuries have in the last few years become the most common occupational illness in the United States. Today, more than half of all reported occupational illnesses involve repeated trauma, say officials at the U.S. Department of Labor. And poultry plant workers are injured through repeated trauma more often than workers in any other U.S. industry except red-meat packing.
`Don't have an answer yet'
Industry officials acknowledge the high number of worker hand and arm injuries, but the solution for many companies is to eliminate the jobs through greater automation - with the likely result that bacterial contamination of chicken caused by such machinery will get worse.
"We're well aware of the problem. And we don't have an answer for it yet," said Harold Ford, executive vice president for the Southeastern Poultry and Egg Association.
"We're trying to be responsive. We don't want our employees to suffer working for us," said Mr. Ford. "We're reaching the point, because of worker complaints and insurance problems and the OSHA on our backs, that we have no choice but to look for more automation that can replace the people in the plants. That means you'll have more people in these rural communities unemployed. Many are not skilled, and they're not going to be able to go out and get other jobs overnight."
Each morning across the U.S. poultry belt - in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina - tens of thousands of workers report to poultry processing lines. In the Gainesville area, where Miss Reyes works, the work force is predominantly Mexican. Elsewhere in Georgia, in cities such as Buena Vista, Athens, Macon and Carrollton, and in other poultry belt states poultry workers are mostly black.
Whatever their race or national origin, however, the workers are overwhelmingly female and, according to physicians, particularly susceptible to repeated trauma injuries.
Miss Reyes, her sister and niece are among the 12,000 Mexican workers who labor in Gainesville area poultry plants. Dressed in cotton smocks, hairnets and rubber boots, they join other shift workers streaming before dawn from the two-room cottages and cramped trailers of Gainesville's "Little Mexico." About one-third are in the United States illegally, workers themselves estimate.
From some Mexican villages, like Maria Reyes's hometown of Cinco de Febrero in the state of Durango, almost two-thirds of the population has moved to Gainesville in the past seven years. She crossed the border into the United States two years ago, unable to speak English - and the $6-an-hour poultry job was the only work she could find. In Mexico, she operated a word processor for the government.
`I feel like I'm trapped'
While many of the injured American poultry workers try to seek help from state workers' compensation boards, or even at times through the courts, most Mexicans cannot even complain about working conditions.
They worry that if they do, they could jeopardize their jobs and their continued presence in the United States. A quick call to immigration authorities could settle a labor dispute at many plants.
Teodoro Maus, the Mexican consul in Atlanta, finds conditions in the poultry industry disheartening. "It's tragic - these people come here to work, and they'll work 20 hours a day under the worst conditions with little complaint, because they feel they have no choice," he said. "What's worse is that there are companies willing to take advantage of these people, have them working under these horrible conditions, knowing they will never speak up."
Looking down at her swollen hands at the end of the week, Maria Reyes grows silent for a moment. Then she says quietly through an interpreter, "I feel like I'm trapped. I cannot get a better job because even though I have skills, I don't speak the language. If I complain, they send me home without pay, and then I have nothing."
Her sister nods in agreement: "We rarely complain at work. We can lose our job. Or worse, they send us back to Mexico."
Hand and wrist injuries have been well-documented at a few poultry plants in recent years. Federal work safety officials say the injury rate is alarming:
- One in five poultry workers has been seriously injured in the hands, wrists or shoulders, many requiring surgery, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) experts say.
- Poultry processing and slaughtering had an average of 15 percent more repeated trauma injuries in 1989 than the motor vehicle assembly industry and 118 percent more than the shipbuilding industry.
- An estimated one in three poultry plant workers today suffers severe pain in the arms, wrists or shoulders, according to Thomas Hales, a medical epidemiologist at NIOSH.
- Poultry processing was ranked the 24th most hazardous U.S. industry in 1989, out of 697 ranked, for injuries and illnesses causing lost work time. It was worse than coal mining, auto manufacturing and construction, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
'This is a huge problem'
"This is a huge problem throughout the poultry industry," said Dr. Hales, who has helped design studies on workers in several poultry plants, including the Cargill Inc. plant in Buena Vista and a Perdue Farms plant in North Carolina. "I would say one-third of the workers on production lines throughout the poultry industry today are suffering from repetitive trauma disorders."
Georgia legislators are studying a bill introduced this year to change state workers' compensation laws. In part, it would make it harder for poultry workers with repeated trauma injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, to qualify for compensation, say workers' comp attorneys.
The bill's chief author, Rep. Jim Griffin (D-Tunnel Hill), said he is unsure how it would affect carpal tunnel cases, but said the measure is designed to save the state money. "I think a big problem with workers' compensation today is that it's paying for things it shouldn't pay for. That's what we need to fix."
Poultry processing workers, who average $6.90 an hour, are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States, labor statistics show. Poultry processing pays its workers the lowest wages of all food manufacturing industries in the country.
In Georgia in 1990, the average weekly pretax wage for poultry workers, $314.78, was significantly lower than that of manufacturing and construction workers. While many Mexican workers in Gainesville do not complain because they fear deportation, poultry workers in other towns - many of them single mothers - say simply they cannot afford to risk the regular pay.
Alice Denise Fletcher, 32, cut breast meat from chickens on the processing line at the Choctaw Maid Farms plant in Carthage, Miss., for a decade. The single mother earned about $5 an hour to pay the bills and feed her three children.
Every other second of every minute she worked on the processing line, she grabbed a chicken with her left hand, and with a quick twisting motion sliced the breast meat away from the bird with a small knife in her right hand, more than 14,000 chickens every day.
In 1988, Ms. Fletcher's right wrist began to hurt so much she had difficulty holding her knife. The company sent her to a doctor, who gave her medication and took her off the line for one day. Then the pain began again.
"It got worse, and they never would let me go to the doctor after that first time," she says today. After a few months she could scarcely use her hand at all. A personal physician in Jackson offered an independent diagnosis: severe carpal tunnel syndrome. In 1989 and 1990, she underwent surgery on her right wrist a total of three times.
Today she assembles lamps at a workshop for the handicapped in Kosciusko, Miss. She gets paid $1.50 an hour and gets food stamps to feed her children.
"I blame the chicken plant for injuring me. I ain't going to be able to use my hands the same way ever again," she said.
Ricky Rayborn, human resources director at the plant, would not address Ms. Fletcher's case. "We operate a safe plant, and we do everything we can to prevent injuries," he said. "When an injury does take place, we make sure the injured workers are taken care of through proper medical procedures and medical personnel."
For some, permanent damage
In interviews, more than 40 injured workers from a dozen different poultry plants said they were discouraged or even prevented from seeing doctors when they complained of pain.
The workers said they had to complain as many as half a dozen times over a month or more before they were allowed by plant nurses to see a company doctor.
In spite of notes from doctors, some were fired after they were injured, according to workers' compensation attorneys. In some cases, workers said, company doctors told them nothing was wrong. When they sought a second opinion, they learned from other physicians that they had been severely injured, often requiring surgery.
"If you don't intervene and remove these workers and treat their injuries, and you progress to the carpal tunnel stage, then these can be disabling injuries," said Dr. Hales. "They can be irreversible in some of these workers."
David H. Moskowitz, a workers' compensation lawyer in Decatur who has represented more than 75 injured poultry workers in South Georgia, said he often has to fight with companies before they will allow injured workers to see company doctors. "It's like something you'd imagine out of the Soviet Union," he said. "It's hard to believe someone injured in the course of employment should have to go through this much turmoil just to get appropriate medical treatment in a democratic society."
Linda C. Cromer, an organizer with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents about 10 plants across the poultry belt, says the industry "has reached a crisis situation." "Processors have proven they will not willingly make these jobs more safe. It's up to enlightened consumers and workers with unions to force safe and necessary changes in the industry," she said. In 1989, the Empire Kosher Foods poultry plant in Mifflintown, Pa., was fined $1.36 million by OSHA for "knowingly and willfully" exposing workers to cumulative trauma injuries. It was the first such fine in the country - but not the last.
That same year, Cargill's plant in Buena Vista was fined $242,000 and also cited for "knowingly and willfully" injuring about half its workers.
The plants - and others fined later - contested the government action. In some cases, settlements are still pending. But Empire Kosher Foods, Cargill and other companies have started new safety programs as a result of government pressure.
`Strength just leaves my hands'
But many critics say the speed of production lines is the major reason for the continuing high rate of injuries. The lines have not been slowed.
Some plants rotate workers in an effort to reduce injuries, but many workers say they still experience pain.
For Ann Moultry, 47, and others like her, the poultry plants are often the best work they can find.
"It's true, it's a good-paying job. And those are hard to find around here," she said. For seven years she has been grading and hanging 41 chickens a minute at the Southland Broilers Inc. plant in Enterprise, Ala. Last year, she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and underwent surgery on both wrists. She can now do only light work at the plant.
"At times I can't even wring a bath rag out," she said. "The strength just leaves my hands."
Color photo: [Images not available] Crippled hand: Stitches show where surgery was performed on a poultry worker / Michael A. Schwarz / Staff -- Color photo: Its claim to fame: On its water tower and elsewhere, Gainesville heralds itself as the "Poultry Capital of the World" / Michael A. Schwarz / staff -- Illustration: Carpal tunnel syndrome
Many poultry workers suffer from the syndrome, which occurs when a major nerve is compressed as is passes through a narrow tunnel of bone and ligament at the wrist. This median nerve conducts sensation from part of the hand up the arm. When it is compressed, the result is numbness, tingling, "pins and needles," burning and pain in the fingers and hand. Cross-section diagram of the human hand shows location of radial artery, tendons, median nerve, carpal tunnel, and deep branch of ulnar nerve and artery.
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