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The chicken industry’s worker safety problem

There’s a human cost to factory-processed chicken.

Laura Bult came to the video team via Vox’s Netflix show, Explained , and previously worked on documentary series for National Geographic and Zero Point Zero Production.

Starting in the 1960s, US consumers began a love affair with chicken. America’s proteins of choice once were beef and pork, until the poultry industry found a way to produce a lot of chicken, making it cheap and plentiful. Human workers paid the cost of that productivity as, over the past few decades, poultry processing line speeds have increased to meet this demand. But that’s happened in tandem with the decline of unions and deregulation of the industry. The result is a high rate of workplace injuries and repetitive motion disorders, with gaps in workplace safety oversight.

For this video, we contacted Tyson Foods Inc. and the National Chicken Council for comment. The National Chicken Council (NCC), the poultry industry lobby that has repeatedly requested line speed increases, wrote that faster line speeds do not affect the pace of work because plants will add additional staff and lines to accommodate the increase in speeds. Through our reporting and our sources, we weren’t able to substantiate this claim, and the NCC did not respond when we asked for an example of when this has happened or for any other evidence that this is the industry standard.

The NCC also mentioned that other countries also run poultry line speeds as fast as, if not faster than, the US. It’s difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison with other countries because of the regulatory framework and union issues we cover in the video. Claire Kelloway, reporter and researcher for OpenMarkets, noted that in Europe, for example, factories are typically smaller than US plants, and there are higher rates of unionization and more industry safety regulation. The regulating agencies enforce longer breaks and switching up job roles to avoid repetition, for example. Even so, working conditions in poultry plants are still criticized there.

While the NCC cites a decline in workplace injuries, experts and advocates say this data is unreliable. It relies on workers reporting injuries to the government agency that regulates workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). There are a number of reasons a poultry worker might not report an injury or illness, including language barriers or fears over their citizenship status. We mention that worker- and advocate-led surveys show high levels of injury and include one example, but there are many more.

Tyson Foods Inc. disputes, without evidence, the petition that Magaly Licolli presented on behalf of the workers at the Berry Street poultry plant in Springdale, Arkansas. The company said it was misrepresented to the workers who signed it and that there were double signatures. We interviewed a worker who helped distribute the petition who said otherwise. Tyson Foods also noted that they offered raises to poultry workers in 2021 amid a labor shortage.

We also contacted OSHA for comment. In their response, they noted that they issue citations or fines to any workplace found by federal inspectors to have violated their safety standards, but confirmed that it is under the jurisdiction of the USDA to determine line speeds. They also said that they do not track data on the use of the chemicals we mention in the video: chlorine, ammonia, and peracetic acid.

While reporting this episode, I read Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket, which I would recommend if you are interested in deep-dive reporting into the history of Tyson Foods and the poultry industry.

I also reread Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. More on the impact of The Jungle here.

A congressional report recently revealed that the death toll from Covid-19 outbreaks in meat-processing plants was three times higher than previously thought:

Read this for more coverage of the failed OSHA ergonomics rule.

Deborah Berkowitz, the former OSHA chief of staff and director of the Worker Safety and Health Program of the National Employment Law Project, was a crucial source for this story. Here is her recent congressional testimony on workplace safety for the meat-processing industry.

There is some reporting on whether more automation could help reduce workplace injuries. In general, Europe has higher levels of automation in meat-processing plants than in the US.

This story is about the history of anti-union politics, specifically in Arkansas as it relates to the poultry industry.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.