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By Rose Hoban

Poultry workers in the western part of North Carolina got a little good news for Labor Day, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor, which this week awarded grants to promote health and safety.

As a result, the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center will be on the receiving end of $79,972 to help train poultry workers to reduce injuries.

“For us, being a small regional not-for-profit, it’s a significant amount of money. But it’s important work,” said Hunter Ogletree, a WNCWC staff member. “We’re happy to be able to expand our focus on workplace health and safety.”

The grant will allow Ogletree and his four co-workers, all of whom work part time, to put in more hours and do more trainings for poultry workers at two plants, located in Morganton and Wilkesboro.

Ogletree said the plants each employ about 1,000 workers, many of them Latino and Hmong. WNCWC’s work will be primarily with those two groups.

“Poultry plants are some of the most dangerous food-processing jobs in the country,” he said, “and there’s a long list of different workplace health and safety issues that go along with poultry.”

Good jobs, dangerous jobs

Among the problems workers experience are repetitive stress injuries, in particular carpal tunnel syndrome, which result from the repetitive nature of the tasks. These include hanging birds, cutting them open, deboning and dressing.

“The line speeds are super fast, and when you’re working at that speed and handling super-sharp knives there are health and safety issues around that,” Ogletree said.

He said he’s met mothers who can’t pick up their children after the months and years of the repetitive motion involved in doing the work.

A training with poultry workers and staff from the Western North Carolina Workers Center. Photo courtesy WNCWC

But the jobs are good, and workers know the risks, said Sara Quandt, an epidemiology researcher at Wake Forest University’s school of medicine, who has studied occupational health and safety issues for poultry workers.

In one paper, Quandt and her colleagues described how, “Every 2 seconds during an 8-10 hour work day, poultry workers must complete their assigned task to hang, cut, [eviscerate], trim, debone or pack chicken.”

“Ironically, workers talk about these being good jobs,” Quandt said. “They’re good jobs because these are largely Latino workers, many don’t speak English, they don’t have proper documents, and so they’re limited in the numbers of jobs they can take.

“And these jobs are always there; it’s indoors, it’s not seasonal, and so the paycheck keeps coming.”

Quandt said the health problems don’t all happen at once, which makes it harder for employees to claim worker’s compensation for injuries.

“If your hand is amputated in a machine, that’s one thing,” she said. “Things like carpal tunnel syndrome are hard to claim that they’re work-related because they’re not a specific incident.”

For example, workers hurt shoulders lifting birds to hang them up for processing. While an individual bird might only weigh five or seven pounds, repeating the task, all day long, ends up causing damage to muscles, tendons and nerves.

“Then if you work farther down the line, where you’re cutting and trimming the birds, you’re making thousands of cuts a day, the same ones over and over again,” Quandt said. “While there may be immediate injuries, it’s the long-term consequences that workers are really burdened with. Things like carpal tunnel syndrome start gradually and mount up over time, and they’re difficult to recover from.”

Personal protective equipment

Another focus of problems for poultry workers, and for the health and safety trainings conducted by WNCWC, is the use of personal protective equipment.

Workers wear gowns, rubber gloves and hair and beard nets to reduce contamination of the chickens. But there’s also equipment to protect the workers.

“[We’ll] make sure they understand what the right [personal protective equipment] is so they can advocate for themselves that they’re receiving it,” Ogletree said. “Often they’re not getting the right PPE at all.”

Quandt said poultry workers need rubber boots and rubber aprons, “because you’re in a wet environment; it’s wet and greasy and slippery.”

But most important are metal mesh gloves worn by workers who slice up, debone and otherwise process chickens, several times a minute.

“One of the things that happens is lacerations; one reason they get them is that the knives get dull,” Quandt said. “So you’re more likely to cut yourself.”

Ogletree said the training will encompass what rights workers have under Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules and how to advocate for themselves.

But Quandt said that often workers don’t advocate for themselves because they know “there’s someone outside waiting for your job.”

“The competitive nature of the food industry is such that labor gets really squeezed, so they’re expected to work more and faster, and that’s what really adds to these injury rates,” she said.

People who advocate for workers on the other end of the supply chain worry about squeezing as well.

“Cheap chicken has made some people billionaires, but has put farmers and workers in horrible conditions,” said Scott Marlow, who heads Rural Advancement Foundation International, based in Pittsboro, “because companies use their economic power to force workers to work for very low payment, very low wages.”

He said that pressure keeps the costs of food relatively low in the U.S. compared to other industrialized countries.

“As fewer and fewer companies own more and more of the industry, there’s less competition for farmers or workers and the value of what those workers contribute is pushed down and down,” Marlow said.

Quandt said she also found in her research that workers know the risks of working in the poultry industry.

“They’re here to better their families, and these jobs pay more than some,” she said. “We did a study about carpal tunnel syndrome, and they know exactly what causes it. They knew that, inevitably, they were going to be disabled from it. But yet they did it.

“They’re not dumb.”

Program at risk

During a press conference to announce the grants this week, Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher Lu said the House of Representatives has proposed cutting the program, which gave away $10.7 million to 80 groups around the country to train workers in dangerous industries.

“We think this cut would harm the most vulnerable workers who work in high-hazard workplaces,” Lu said.

WNCWC and other grantees will use materials that have already been developed and are archived on the Department of Labor website in a database of training materials that have been approved by federal reviewers.

Lu said millions of workers have been trained under the programs, which he argued is a cost-effective way of getting training to workers who need it.

“These are workers who are difficult for OSHA to reach directly,” he said. “The grants focus on employees in small businesses who want to do the right thing but lack the knowledge or materials to do so.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...