Workers are getting injured, but the Department of Agriculture says their safety is not its responsibility.
Sixty miles northeast of Atlanta, a chicken statue atop a 25-foot monument proclaims the small city of Gainesville, Georgia, the “Poultry Capital of the World.” In the rolling hills outside of town, white feathers trail the trucks turning into a slaughterhouse operated by a local company called Fieldale Farms.
The Fieldale factory employs about 1,900 people. A lawn sign advertises jobs for $11-plus an hour and a big banner shouts “Think Safe, Work Safe.” But in recent years, according to federal safety records obtained by ProPublica, the factory has been the site of several grisly accidents, resulting in hospitalizations, amputations and death.
Those accidents didn’t prevent Fieldale from getting special permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to speed up its processing lines. Chicken companies have long wanted to operate their plants faster so that they can boost profits, either by producing more chickens or using less labor. But speeding up increases the risks to employees already working in dangerous conditions, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
It’s been only a few months since the speed increase took effect, not long enough to make meaningful before-and-after comparisons. And there is no available data to compare injury rates at the factories with higher speeds to the industry average because the Trump administration scrapped a requirement for employers to submit their injury logs. What is clear, from safety records obtained by ProPublica, is that most of the 11 plants that received permission to run faster did so despite having a history of serious accidents, including deaths.
The chicken industry has higher injury rates than coal mines or construction sites, and it’s the biggest source of finger amputations. Workers are under constant pressure to keep production going at a grueling speed. They typically perform one motion over and over, handling knives just a few inches from the next worker, surrounded by harsh chemicals and spinning blades.
“Increasing line speeds will increase poultry workers’ exposure to all of these hazards,” David Michaels, the head of OSHA from 2009 to 2017, said in a 2012 memo opposing a USDA proposal at the time to increase line speeds. Scientific studies, including both government-funded and industry-sponsored, have established that going faster worsens the risk of repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. There is also evidence that feeling rushed or struggling to keep up with the work pace are factors in traumatic injuries.
“My conclusion from conducting this detailed research is there is no doubt that increasing line speed will increase laceration injuries to workers,” Melissa Perry, chair of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said in a submission to the USDA opposing a similar plan to raise line speeds in pork slaughterhouses. The USDA is moving forward with that policy despite an internal investigation into whether the agency relied on flawed data to justify it.
For chicken factories, the USDA isn’t going through the time-consuming and contentious process of making a new regulation with a higher speed limit. Instead, it agreed to waive the existing cap for companies that ask. “This deregulatory action would advance the president’s objective to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens,” the National Chicken Council, an industry trade group, said in its formal request for the waivers.
When the USDA started issuing line speed waivers to poultry plants last year, the agency said it wouldn’t consider the impact on worker safety. “The agency has neither the authority nor the expertise to regulate issues related to establishment worker safety,” the USDA said in its official announcement of the speed waivers. “OSHA is the federal agency with statutory and regulatory authority to promote workplace safety and health.”
But OSHA has no control over line speeds. A spokeswoman with the agency said the USDA “has sole jurisdiction over line speeds at these plants.”
This gap in the regulatory framework puts workers at risk, said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff. She now directs the National Employment Law Project’s Worker Health and Safety Program.
“The USDA doesn’t care about worker safety, they just care about increasing profits for huge meatpacking companies,” Berkowitz said. “If production increases and everybody has to work harder and faster in an already dangerous environment, that increases injuries.”
The National Chicken Council’s request for waivers acknowledged that “worker safety is a factor plants must consider when deciding the most appropriate line speed for their operations.” But the trade group argued that this shouldn’t prevent the USDA from issuing waivers because companies could take actions to address the risks.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator, Carmen Rottenberg, has said in a December interview with trade press that the agency plans to use the line speed waivers to revisit the case for lifting the limit everywhere. The USDA declined to provide an interview with Rottenberg, and her spokesman declined to comment on the timeline for that proposal.
“A Deadly Trap”
Before it received a waiver, the Fieldale plant repeatedly broke safety rules, and managers clashed with OSHA over its enforcement efforts, according to hundreds of pages of records obtained by ProPublica.
Inside the plant, there’s an insulated room for storing ice. Ice cubes fall from the ceiling into a huge mound; they then slide through turning screw-shaped blades that break up the ice and feed the cubes into the factory. The blades are covered by a grate in the floor.
One morning in 2014, a worker went inside to fetch some ice. Some of the bars in the floor grate were loose or missing, but the worker couldn’t see the gaps buried under the ice. His foot fell through the faulty grate and onto the screw-shaped blades, severing his leg below the knee. He crawled out of the ice house and cried for help.
“He’s bleeding bad and he’s in shock,” an employee told the 911 dispatcher. “Please tell them to hurry up before the man dies.”
The worker survived, but his leg was so damaged that all but five inches had to be amputated.
The plant manager, David Rackley, told the OSHA inspector that the worker got hurt because he was “thin” so his foot must have fit through the regular spaces in the grate. The inspector measured the width of the thick rubber boots that the worker was wearing (5 inches) against the spaces in the grate (2 inches). Then Rackley abandoned his claim, according to the OSHA report. The inspector called Rackley’s shifting explanations “deceptive” and “not true.”
The inspector learned from interviewing employees that Fieldale hadn’t bothered to fix the grates despite repeated complaints about the missing bars. Then, right after the accident, the company immediately fixed the grates and “covered up” records of the sudden repair. The inspector called it “a deadly trap.”
Rackley, who is still the plant manager, referred questions to Fieldale’s president, Tom Hensley. In an interview, Hensley repeated the false claim that the worker was injured because he was “small” and “somehow his small little foot got through the guard.” When presented with the inspector’s measurements and discovery that Fieldale “covered up” its repair of the faulty bars, Hensley said he wasn’t aware. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard that,” he said.
The OSHA inspector had previously warned Fieldale about maintaining protective barriers around dangerous equipment, after an unguarded conveyor had sliced open an employee’s arm. It wouldn’t be the last time, either.
The Fieldale plant had a longtime handyman named Ricardo Aburto. Aburto’s job was to patch things up to keep the line running until a full repair could occur during downtime on the weekend, according to his wife, Alicia De La Paz.
On a Tuesday in July 2015, Aburto climbed up on a ladder to fix a high-power light, according to OSHA records. To remove the cover, he touched his screwdriver to a bolt. Instantly, he dropped to the floor.
“He stopped breathing,” a nurse told the 911 dispatcher.
The wires that powered the light were supposed to be surrounded by insulation. But over time the coating wore down and Fieldale hadn’t replaced it, the OSHA inspector found. The exposed conductors electrified the light’s casing, shocking Aburto as soon as his screwdriver touched it. He was killed.
OSHA cited Fieldale for failing to insulate the wiring and for leaving the light on while Aburto was working on it. Fieldale paid a fine of $4,900.
Despite the coroner’s finding that Aburto was electrocuted, which was reported in the local newspaper, Hensley maintained to ProPublica that Aburto died of a heart attack. He also said his engineers found nothing wrong with the light, even though the OSHA inspector took a photo of the exposed wiring. Hensley acknowledged that the light should not have been on while Aburto was working on it.
De La Paz said she was furious when she learned that Aburto’s death was so easily preventable. She said she wanted to sue but she couldn’t get a lawyer who would take the case because none of the witnesses would agree to testify against Fieldale.
“I miss him every single day,” De La Paz said. “That’s a pain nothing can ever take away.” Four years later, she still describes him in the present tense: “Ricardo is,” instead of “Ricardo was.”
De La Paz said that since Fieldale failed to take simple and required safety precautions, it should not have received special permission to speed up operations, possibly exposing employees to additional risks.
In response, Hensley disputed that the line speed increase has any effect on worker safety. “It wouldn’t matter how many birds a minute were processed through the plant for that accident,” he said. “So we had a couple of bad ones, and we regret them, for sure.”
A few days after the USDA announced that it would start granting line speed waivers, Hensley introduced Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, at an industry conference in Atlanta. Georgia is the country’s No. 1 chicken producer, and agriculture is its top industry.
“President Trump could not have selected a better person for secretary of agriculture than Georgia’s own Sonny Perdue,” Hensley said at the event. Hensley and Perdue have known each other for years. Fieldale has bought corn from Perdue’s farm, Hensley said. (The secretary is not related to the chicken brand.) Hensley sends Perdue Christmas cards.
Fieldale became one of the first companies to receive a line speed waiver, in October 2018. In May, the USDA granted a second waiver to another Fieldale facility nearby, where a worker clearing an air pipe had lost several fingers in the blade of a rotary valve.
Hensley told ProPublica he hasn’t been in touch with Perdue outside of the conference and he doesn’t think their relationship had any effect on the waiver. A USDA spokesman said the waiver decisions were made by career staff, not political appointees.
After the speed increase took effect, an employee’s fingers were cut off while he was trying to remove a piece of chicken stuck in a machine that removes neck skin, according to OSHA records. Hensley said this machine’s speed hasn’t changed.
“Our backs hurt when we go faster,” said Luis Miguel Santiago Torres, a 30-year-old worker who said he injured his knee at the Fieldale factory and recently left. “We are humans.”
“An Odd Coincidence”
In October 2018, the USDA gave a line speed waiver to Gerber Poultry in Kidron, Ohio, 60 miles south of Cleveland. The company had requested the waiver with a one-page cover letter that made no mention of worker safety.
In anticipation of cranking up the speed, the company decided to order a spare set of motors so it wouldn’t lose any time if one of them broke. So the staff needed to look up the part numbers. A maintenance man named Bill Derwacter climbed up on a stepladder to read the number off one of the motors, suspended 10 feet above the factory floor.
Derwacter said he knew that federal regulations require factories to turn off equipment whenever it’s being serviced, but he didn’t think it was a big deal to climb up and read the part number, something he’d done many times before.
As Derwacter stood up there, the motor’s spinning sprocket snatched his sleeve, pulling his arm into the machine. The motor sliced his arm open and snapped a bone. It yanked him off the stepladder and threw him to the floor.
Gerber’s vice president for compliance, Glenn Mott, said he saw the ambulance outside just as he was stepping out of a meeting with USDA officials about implementing the speed increase. “I thought, that’s such bizarre timing,” Mott, who signed the letter requesting a speed waiver, said in an interview. “It was an odd coincidence.”
Derwacter said he’s grateful to Gerber for covering all his medical expenses, including multiple surgeries, and holding his job for him. “They took amazing care of me; I can’t even say nothing bad,” Derwacter said. “It was truly 100% an accident.”
OSHA, however, faulted Gerber for failing to turn off the motor and for not making sure employees followed the rule to do so. The inspector proposed a fine of $14,782, which was later reduced to $11,086.
Mott acknowledged that the line should not have been running while Derwacter was near it. But he said the accident did not cause him to rethink his plans because it could have happened at any speed. Starting the next day, the company gradually increased its speed over several weeks until reaching the new maximum.
“I Can’t Do a Lot of Things Anymore”
The injuries from working in chicken factories are often not from traumatic accidents, but from the steady strain of doing one thing over and over, at a fast pace. These injuries, which can be painful and debilitating, were already common, and researchers say speeding up the lines will make them worse.
“Despite repeated studies in this industry in the past 20 years that found high prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome, poultry processing jobs continue to be hazardous,” researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said in 2014. “We found that the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome increased with increasing exposure to the occupational risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders,” such as repetition.
Ethan Doney said that, on his first day at Peco Foods in Pocahontas, Arkansas, in 2016, he and other new hires were told by the company that they should report any injuries to the on-site nurse, and anyone who went to an outside doctor would be fired.
Peco officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. (Peco’s facilities in neighboring Mississippi were among the sites raided by immigration authorities in August, part of the largest sweep in decades.)
Doney was tasked with cutting meat off the bone. By the second month working shifts as long as 12 hours, Doney’s fingers started locking up and he felt a burning sensation all the way up to his shoulder.
He said he went to the nurse every day for three months, but she refused to send him to a doctor because she said he was faking. Doney said the nurse put some balm on his hands, wrapped them up and sent him back to work.
After six months, Doney got so fed up that he quit and went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands and nerve damage in both elbows. Both arms needed surgery. Doney asked Peco to pay for the procedures, but the company said no, because he was no longer an employee. The company also refused to rehire him, Doney said, because the same nurse who previously accused him of faking now said he couldn’t work until he had the surgeries.
Doney had the operation on his left arm, but he didn’t have surgery on the right one because it was scheduled for the day his twins were born. He still hasn’t had the procedure and continues to feel the effect of his injuries. “I couldn’t hold them for long periods of time,” Doney, 25, said of his children. “I can’t do a lot of things anymore.”
One of Doney’s co-workers at Peco, Lazaro Villegas, took pride in how fast he could pull chicken breasts off the bone. Villegas said he knew the workers were supposed to rotate through different positions to avoid repetitive strain injuries, but the supervisors often shifted them right back or didn’t move them at all. “They put a lot of stress on the supervisors to make sure the line keeps moving,” he said. “It’s all about the money.”
Villegas, 48, started waking up in the middle of the night with intense pain in his hands. “It would hurt like needles poking at you,” he said. “I’d be dead asleep and boom, the pain would just be way too much.” Peco moved him to a different department that was supposed to be less strenuous, but the pain didn’t go away. After a year, the company finally sent him to a doctor, who said he had carpal tunnel in both hands. Peco paid for surgery on the right hand but fired Villegas two days before the operation, he said, because he’d missed too many days of work. The doctor said Villegas’ left hand wasn’t bad enough to justify surgery, but it still bothers him.
“Peco needs to learn how to treat their employees better,” Villegas said. “Even if they gave me more money right now, I still wouldn’t go back.”
This story is co-published with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was originally published by ProPublica.
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