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Shocking health revelations from workers in the poultry industry

By Leon Harmse on 19 September 2016

Company practices work against health and safety

Leon’s research found that bonuses are often linked to injury and production rates making it contradictive to a healthier workplace. Company operated clinics are seen by workers as an extension of management and workers claim and in return clinics often fail to take repeated complaints seriously by often stating that workers are looking for excuses not to work.

Employers don’t report as it looks bad

Underreporting of non-fatal occupational health and safety accidents and diseases across all U.S. industry sectors is estimated at 69%. In reviewing the research Harmse found that companies only report work days lost and workers are often re-assigned to other tasks and the incidence or disease is never reported. Worker interviews by Human Rights Watch detailed the following practices:

  • Automated lines move too fast for worker safety
  • Repeating thousands of forceful cutting motions during each work shift puts enormous traumatic stress on workers’ hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and backs.
  • They receive little training and are often forced to work long overtime hours under threat of dismissal if they refuse

What the workers say

Leon’s  research included findings of the HRW that recorded the following in actual interviews:

  • “The company hates to report any incidents (incident—an accident or a near-miss event where no injury or illness occurs) that occur at poultry abattoirs to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OHSA)”;
  • “You work like a dog and when you get hurt you are trash”;
  • “If you get hurt they will look for a way to get rid of you before they report it, they find a reason to fire you or put you in the worse job like the cold room, or they change your shift so that you quit. It is better just work with the pain and don’t report it”
  • There is a lot of macho too, guys don’t like to admit they got hurt and are in pain, they also don’t want to be teased and never report”
  • “The company just fired people when they got hurt or sick. Most people just shut up. They know there are always new people who wants jobs”
  • “I work on the cut  floor and have immense pain in my neck, shoulder and arm but my supervisor won’t move me. Some days I cry the whole time, I use muscle cream but the pain continues. I am still getting hospital bills from a previous work injury”.

The editor of blog GIGjob profiles reported an interview conducted by an anonymous 30 year old worker who stated that “Taking regular work breaks is not always so easy. If we are not done with the truckload of chickens, we cannot leave work at the end of our shift, we are slave...; you just have to be very fast. You’re not always working safely because you have to keep up with the production line. The managers always want more production in less time”.

On production line speeds, U.S. poultry workers stated:

  •   “I came to Arkansas in 1995 and at the time we did 32 birds a minute. I came back and it was 42. People can’t take it”.
  •  “The lines are too fast. The work speed is for machines and not humans. You have to work the knife too hard. That is when pain starts”.

After complaints from the Southern Poverty Law Centre, OSHA found workers suffered Muscular skeletal disorders (MSD) at a U.S. poultry producer and that the employer failed to record and properly manage the injuries and medical treatment of injured employees, failed to refer workers to physicians and discouraged them from seeking medical attention. The employer received 11 citations carrying $102,600 in total fines including two more serious general-duty-clause citations for alleged MSD hazards, carrying penalties of $14,000 for failing to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

So what can we take from this:

Our attitude could be “Well that’s in America! It’s not us!”, and that would be true but literature indicates that SA follows the US production model meaning we can safely say that some of these issues – if not all – are South African too!. A more prudent response would be to use this invaluable review as the basis for an honest reflection of the state of your abattoir.

Top take aways:

  • Create a forum where workers can speak and raise their concerns
  • Evaluate how effectively health and safety committees are working – are you hearing the inconvenient truths?
  • Stop and listen to workers, listen for trends as this will paint a closer version of reality than isolated complaints
  • Stop and listen to supervisors
  • Review clinic records with your occupational medical practioners
  • Conduct simple body comfort surveys regularly – using human pictograms on which workers indicate where they experience discomfort and act on the information available
  • If you are a primary care giver at a production facility stay up to date with research conducted about health impacts relating to your industry (for instance most OHS officers and occupational health nurses were unaware of a link between being a poultry processor and development of cancer……but that is another story!

A special thanks to  Leon Harmse for his willingness to share his published work with us.


Harmse, J.L.; Engelbrecht, J.C.; Bekker, J.L. The Impact of Physical and Ergonomic Hazards on Poultry Abattoir Processing Workers: A Review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2016, 13, 197.