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Providing safe working conditions for employees is critical for every business, but workers in some industries are more prone to injuries and illnesses than in others. That's why chicken processing plants have recently been in the news. Worker advocacy groups have reported poor working conditions and safety records in the industry and have pushed for leading companies to raise wages and improve their worksites.
High Number of Severe Injuries Reported
Poultry processing is one of the most dangerous industries in the nation, according to a report published by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a worker advocacy group. The report, which analyzed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data, found that Tyson Foods and JBS/Pilgrim's Pride—two chicken and meat processing companies—ranked 4th and 6th on the list of companies that reported the most severe injuries to OSHA between January 2015 and September 2016. NELP noted that these two companies have significantly less employees than some of the other companies that topped the list (like Walmart). Severe injuries are defined as those involving amputation, hospitalization or loss of an eye. "The workers who put food on our tables should not have to sacrifice their health for a paycheck," said Debbie Berkowitz, NELP's senior fellow for worker safety and health. (NELP.org)
Protesters Demand Better Working Conditions
Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride aren't the only poultry industry giants in the spotlight. Protesters gathered outside Perdue's chicken processing plant in Salisbury, Md., on April 26 to demand higher wages and better working conditions for the company's employees throughout the country. The protest was part of a campaign led by Oxfam America, an anti-poverty group. "Although all companies say they have priorities to ensure workplace health and safety, we see evidence those are not always being applied," said Alex Galimberti, an Oxfam senior adviser. A Perdue spokeswoman, however, said that workplace safety is a priority for the company and that its incident rates are lower than the industry's average. (Delmarva Now)
Exploitation of Undocumented Immigrants Alleged
Case Farms—a poultry processing company that has serviced Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and federal school lunch programs—was cited almost $2 million by federal workplace-safety inspectors in 2015 and was cited for 240 violations in the last seven years. The company has also been criticized for exploiting undocumented immigrant workers. One worker even received a special visa for crime victims because of work-related issues. The employee "lived in an atmosphere of fear created by supervisors at Case Farms," the U.S. Department of Labor wrote in his visa application. "He feared for his own safety, that if he complained or cooperated with authorities, he would be arrested or deported." (The New Yorker)
Tyson Vows to Improve Working Conditions
Tyson Foods announced its commitment to better working conditions for employees at its processing plants. Oxfam America had accused Tyson and other poultry industry leaders of denying workers bathroom breaks, which the advocacy group said forced some workers to wear adult diapers or face reprisal from their supervisors. Tyson said it plans to provide regularly scheduled bathroom breaks and workers' rights training and will also raise wages and establish safety councils. "We've always been committed to supporting our employees and have sound workplace practices in place, but also want to do better," said incoming Chief Operating Officer Noel White. "That's why we're taking steps that include expanding training, improving workplace safety and compensation, increasing transparency and helping workers with life skills." (NPR)
Industry Group Says Conditions are Getting Better
Despite the reported unsafe working conditions, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI)—a national trade association—has said that meat and poultry plant injuries have declined significantly over the past two decades. "During the last decade, injury and illness rates in the U.S. meat industry have declined by nearly 50 percent, and that improvement reaches almost 80 percent when considering the past 20 years," said NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter. The institute awarded 108 meat and poultry plants with worker safety recognition awards for their workplace safety accomplishments. The awards are presented annually as part of an industry effort to improve working conditions. (The National Provisioner)
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