It was his third day at an Alabama poultry plant, when Carlos felt a shooting, violent pain run through his right hand. His appendage felt like it was being ripped in two. Despite the ensuring burn, Carlos kept working, knowing that the only way to save enough money to return home to Puerto Rico was to shut up and keep cutting the dead birds.
A carpenter by trade, Carlos came to Alabama after construction jobs in Puerto Rico dried up. He and his wife saw advertisements in newspapers calling for workers to man poultry plants in the U.S., an industry largely dominated by Latinos.
But poultry work, as Carlos will attest, is more demanding than he thought.
Workers hang, pull, cut and dig thousands of times a day to clean and ready chicken before it hits grocery stores. The result has many workers complaining of debilitating pain, which continues long after the work stops.
These conditions have advocacy groups crying foul over a USDA proposal designed to update poultry monitoring in plants that may also impact the rate at which workers handle meat.
If the proposal passes, factories would take over examining chicken and turkey for defects, freeing USDA inspectors to monitor other aspects of production and saving taxpayers $1 billion over five years while raising quality levels, according to Congressional testimony given by Cass Sunstein in March, who heads the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
In a factory, the line begins when employees hang live birds upside down on moving hooks. A worker named Jorge reported he would hang 64 birds a minute in a study published by the National Council of La Raza.
The chickens are then slaughtered, scalded, plucked and chilled before workers chop up the carcasses and clean out bones.
Currently, USDA inspectors monitor initial screenings of fowl to check for bruising and other signs that would indicate unsuitable meat, a practice that has been in place for 50 years.
However, the USDA is reconsidering its old practice because today chickens are raised differently and are younger, more uniform in size and appearance when they are readied for slaughter. The USDA recommends now that front-end visual checks can be adequately handled by the companies, freeing up inspectors to check for fecal and other contamination that can happen later in the line.
This change was part of an overall movement encouraged by President Barack Obama to cut costs by streamlining an outdated processes.
However, what ruffles the feathers of advocates is another portion of the proposal that would increase the limit on line speeds. Currently, 140 chickens can be sent through every minute but that limit will increase to 170.
“It’s pretty common sense that turning up the speed on a process that’s already dangerous is going to make it that much more dangerous,” said Catherine Singley, senior policy analyst at National Council of La Raza.
There are 20 chicken plants that have been operating at the increased speeds. Reports reviewed by the USDA indicate that the change could improve quality.
What has not been surveyed, according to worker advocacy groups including the National Council of La Raza, is whether the speed has impacted workers. The USDA did not respond to requests to comment on whether or not a study of worker health will be completed and considered before the passage of the proposed regulation.
It’s pretty common sense that turning up the speed on a process that’s already dangerous is going to make it that much more dangerous.
- Catherine Singley, senior policy analyst at National Council of La Raza
“There was nobody monitoring that, not us, not any of our partner programs, not the federal government,” said Singley, who added that advocates are asking for an occupational study to be completed.
The U.S. Department of Labor did not answer requests made by Fox News Latino for comment on allegations that the USDA did not collaborate with them when developing these guidelines. The USDA did not give an on-the-record interview and did not respond to requests to detail the role the Department of Labor played in the regulation.
The National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation both support the plans that they argue will modernize the process and that repositioning the USDA checkpoint to the end of the line is expected to allow for better screening.
"The National Chicken Council will be providing detailed comments to USDA regarding the proposed rule, outlining concerns and seeking clarification in some areas," an NCC statement said.
Poultry workers repeat intense movements thousands of times a day and have the sixth highest occupational illness rate of any private industry in the US, according to a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
Some common complaints among workers is damage to the muscles and nerves in wrists, arms, necks and backs often seen as severe carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis, the piece reports.
The turnover is also high, as is the demand for poultry.
It is an industry worth over $45 billion and employs more than 235,000 people, according to the study.
Documented and undocumented Latinos make up 34 percent of the employees, a higher percentage than in the overall workforce. Women and men are nearly equally employed in poultry plants, with women primarily involved in cutting and trimming carcasses, according to the National Council of La Raza.
The annual wage for poultry cutters, trimmers, slaughterers and packers is about $24,000 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Carlos said he thought the job would be a perfect short-term income boost until construction work picked up again. But now, he says, he wish he never took it.
When he got back to Puerto Rico, he tried a job washing cars but his hands swelled so much he couldn’t maintain the work. He couldn’t continue on construction jobs, his previous work either. And he isn’t alone. Every Puerto Rican who arrived alongside him returned with injuries, he recalled.
Carlos keeps trying his hand at various jobs but the pain that runs from his index finger to his neck is too severe to sustain any job and he loses his grip on tools and common household objects making it difficult for him to find work.
“I have always been a very strong person. I have dominated physical work for 43 years," Carlos said. "And I have never experienced anything like this in my life.”
Photo: U.S. Department of Labor @ Flickr.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.