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Despite Some Progress, Poultry Workers Still Face Workplace Woes

As the poultry industry pushes for faster line speeds, advocates take stock of improvements and challenges.

After Patricia Zalasar* moved to the United States from Guatemala to escape a violent relationship, she secured a job at a Case Farms poultry processing plant.

The former elementary school teacher described her work on the factory line, slicing breasts, tenders, and wings out of chicken carcasses at the pace of 40 birds per minute—2,400 each hour—as “pesado y duro,” or “heavy and hard.”

Less than a year after starting the job, she feels pain and numbness in her hands. “At home after work, when I try to go to sleep, my hands hurt,” she said, gripping her right wrist and motioning up the underside of her forearm to her armpit. “Every time I get up early to work, my arm hurts.”

Zalasar’s experience is similar to that of many poultry workers in the U.S., who have been found to suffer high rates of carpal-tunnel syndrome and severe injuries including amputation as a result of the quick and forceful motions they carry out over and over each day on the line.

Unfortunately for Zalasar and others, conditions could get even worse if a recent industry proposal to allow increased line speeds moves forward.

Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) capped the maximum speed at which the chickens can move through the processing plants at 140 birds per minute (bpm), reasoning that speeds any faster would exacerbate injuries in workers, as well as abuse in animals and contamination in meat.

On September 1, however, the National Chicken Council petitioned the USDA to waive the 140 bpm limit and allow plants to operate at speeds of 175 bpm. (The USDA has announced a public comment period on the petition ending December 13.)

Pushing production speeds to the max greatly impairs worker safety and wellbeing, said Hunter Ogletree, a protest organizer with the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center (WNCWC), which is working with employees at Case Farms’ Morganton, North Carolina facility. 

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