How fast is too fast? It’s a question over which the poultry industry is currently struggling. Some believe line speeds, which dictate how quickly poultry is processed, can be safely increased, but others are calling foul.
In September, the National Chicken Council wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) petitioning the Food Safety and Inspection Service to create a waiver system to allow plants that participate in certain inspection programs to increase line speeds up to 175 birds per minute (bpm) instead of the current cap at 140 bpm. It would increase the number of birds workers process from 2.25 bpm to 3 bpm.
In these plants, while some workers slice birds, others grab and twist wings into a particular position or debone the birds. It all involves fast-paced, detailed work with one’s hands that carries the risk of injury, whether due to quick repetitive motions, standing for long periods of time, or lacerations due to knives and other equipment.
To put the pace into perspective, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the fastest time anyone has completed a Rubik’s Cube is 4.69 seconds. In videos of record-setting solving times, hands seem to blur, they’re moving so fast. Now imagine having to move your hands almost as quickly but with a knife or while trying to manipulate bone. It’s much easier to see why opponents of the increase cite worker safety as their concern, especially when considering any holdup on the line or visiting a company nurse or going to an outside doctor could cause a worker to be fired, as the Southern Poverty Law Center found in its report, Unsafe at These Speeds.
As the title suggests, the report stresses how the speeds of the poultry industry are a detriment to employees. It notes, “The workers in our survey attribute much of their pain and injuries to the speed of the processing line; 78 percent of workers surveyed said that the line speed makes them feel less safe, makes their work more painful and causes more injuries.” That’s at its current rate.
The proposed change to a maximum of 175 bpm would only apply to the evisceration portion of poultry processing, which the proposal notes is the one with the most automation. Plants would “need to expand to increase capacity in second processing,” where most of the labor force works, to accommodate the increased speed on the front end of production, according to the petition.
However, it’s unclear how well that would be executed given the history of unsafe working conditions in poultry processing. For example, Beasley Allen handled the case of a worker injured in an Alabama processing plant who was also fired after contacting a lawyer. The death of a worker at the same company was also reported at the end of last month.
A letter signed by 40 organizations describing their “alarm” over the proposed birds per minute increase counters that “overwhelming evidence to date suggests this increase would have disastrous results. Until the USDA completes its studies evaluating the safety of existing poultry plant line speeds, no changes in standards should be proposed or made.”
Increasing processing speeds would allow for the potential to increase profit — more chicken translates into more sales — and that is undoubtedly the driving factor behind the desire to change the regulation. Despite claims of maintaining safety at increased speeds, worker wellbeing should always take priority over increased profit potential when evaluating new regulations.
For more information about on-the-job injuries and deaths, and related potential legal claims, contact Kendall Dunson, a lawyer in Beasley Allen’s Personal Injury / Products Liability section at 800-898-2034 or Kendall.Dunson@beasleyallen.com.
Sources: Southern Poverty Law Center, USDA, The National Employment Law Project and the Guinness Book of World Records