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Hazardous Workplaces In Delaware: Poultry Processing Plants

A June 23, 2015 News Journal (Wilmington, DE) article about hazardous workplace conditions and injuries at a Sussex County poultry plant should not be a surprise, but should be a wake-up call to workers everywhere.

First, big agriculture is replete with safety violations. Many of our current workplace legislation originated in the early 1900’s and were the result of the public revulsion at the ghastly conditions at meat packing plants where human limbs were routinely severed. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, graphically described these processing facilities and sparked a national interest in making the workplace safer.

Over a hundred years later, work conditions have sadly not improved that much. Arms are no longer routinely severed but arms and legs are often permanently damaged by working conditions that cause a variety of injuries.

What is worse is that many of these injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, that are caused by repetitive work place motion, are far too often undiagnosed and even more often uncompensated for. Unlike a fall from a ladder that causes a worker to suffer a broken back, these injuries often develop gradually and sometimes the full effect is not obvious until after the worker has moved on to another job or even another state.

Because of this many workers do not take advantage of their right to file suit or make worker’s compensation claims. They also wrongfully conclude that unless they have lost time from work they have no claim.

Recent studies have shown that repetitive stress injuries are one of the most common workplace injuries – common yes but not commonly compensated for.

One of the most recent studies, an April 2015 report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) confirmed the high risk of repetitive stress injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, in poultry processing workers. The research for this study was performed at a poultry processing plant right here in the Delmarva region.

NIOSH had already established the fact that a combination of repetitive tasks, forceful movements and working in cold temperatures made poultry processing workers susceptible to repetitive stress injuries but what they found in this study was truly alarming. Over 75% of the workers at the plant had abnormal results from a nerve conduction test, while 34% were diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also reviewed its records from this plant for the years 2010, 2011 and 20134 and found that sprains, strains, pain, soreness, inflammation, or repetitive motion injuries were the most common recordable injuries at the plant.

One problem for injured workers is that many attorneys are unfamiliar with these types of injuries. It is important that any worker confirm that his or her attorney have successfully handled these types of cases in the past.

Another problem is that in the agricultural industry there is a higher percentage of immigrants, many of whom are afraid of the legal system. Some who have immigration issues are afraid if they come forward they may be deported which is almost the opposite of what actually happens; that if one has a pending legal claim the government will put a hold on any adverse immigration proceeding.

When a juicy chicken or a tender steak appears on your dinner table, you likely don’t think much about the animal’s journey from the farm to your fork. While there has been a national conversation on the humane slaughter of food animals, little attention has been given to the more than 500,000 meat and poultry processing employees in the U.S. who labor each day in an unsafe and unjust environment.

The meat and poultry processing workforce comprises mostly people of color living in low-income communities. At present, nearly 38 percent of the industry’s employees were born outside of this country.

An unknown portion of those workers are undocumented immigrants who heavily rely on their jobs not just as a means to support their families, but as an opportunity to continue living in the U.S. As a result, the constant fear of terminations keeps workers from reporting issues, such as injuries, and forces them to be submissive, leaving them with no power to fight back.

Even though the meat and poultry processing industry has shifted from manual labor to machinery over the years, the risk for employee injury remains high. Long hours and repetitive motions, for example, often lead to chronic pains in the workers’ hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and back. The demanding schedules also cause physical and mental exhaustion.

Stress is yet another major struggle that many workers in this industry face. Keeping up with the high speed in which many facilities operate is challenging, as companies want to maximize profits by minimizing the time it takes to complete important tasks.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this industry is the existence of a poor workplace safety culture that discourages employees from reporting injuries. Corporations seem to be more concerned with the reputation of their business on paper than with the welfare of their employees. Some companies even resort to bribery in an effort keep the number of worker comp claims low.

Dangerous, stressful and oppressive workplace conditions are taking a toll on meat and poultry processing employees across the country. With limited resources and low rank, these workers are forced to work in these environments in order to earn a living. These employees deserve to have access to a safe and fair working environment.