Getting Thanksgiving Turkeys to Table Can Be Risky Job (1)

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By Fatima Hussein and Sam Pearson

Millions of Americans will sit down for Thanksgiving feasts on Thursday, but it takes dangerous work to get the main course ready before it gets to stores.

Poultry workers—including the turkey processors—experience rates of work-related injuries and illnesses 60 percent higher than the average worker’s, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Among the greatest dangers is amputation.

Turkey processors have been cited for at least 61 Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations since 2011 and paid more than $350,000 in fines. The vast majority of the penalties were paid by the Jennie-O Turkey Store Inc., a subsidiary of food company Hormel Foods . It paid $238,000 in penalties for 16 violations issued after a worker’s amputation in 2011.

Working alone cleaning equipment at a Jennie-O Turkey plant, Shawn Redman had his left arm ripped off in a machine that was supposed to be turned off.

Redman walked down 25 stairs and 200 feet across a production floor at the Wisconsin plant to get a co-worker’s attention, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Doctors later reattached Redman’s arm.

A spokesman for Jennie-O Turkey said in a statement to Bloomberg Law the incident was “a terribly unfortunate event involving an instance of not following safety procedures and guidelines.” The company said it later provided additional safety training to employees.
The company’s citations centered on violations of lockout/tagout and confined space rules, by failing to operate the machine in such a way that it couldn’t be turned on during cleaning, and failing to have appropriate safety procedures for the confined space. Failing to de-energize machinery is among the most common violations OSHA finds across all industries, agency data shows.

Hard Work

The poultry industry’s high injury rate stems from pressure to work fast in harsh and dangerous conditions, Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director at the National Employment Law Project, told Bloomberg Law.

Manual slaughtering, cutting, freezing and working in wet, cold conditions are grueling, Berkowitz said, and turkeys are harder to handle because of their larger size. The average turkey weighs 16 pounds, according to the National Turkey Federation, while the National Chicken Council pegs its smaller birds at just over 6 pounds.

The pressure on workers is likely to continue, with the USDA’s Economic Research Service estimating that global turkey processing will hit a new high of 30 million pounds by 2019.

The hazards have drawn the attention of OSHA officials, who are targeting the industry in some areas. Besides a national emphasis program for amputations in all industries, the agency has an emphasis program for poultry processing facilities, covering workers in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Emphasis programs are a set of enforcement policies and procedures targeting specific hazards or industries.

Safer Approaches

Industry representatives say injury rates have declined in the last 20 years, and companies say they’re taking action to address the risk by embracing technologies to separate employees from the production line.

But Berkowitz says improved injury data can be a mirage. “This is an industry that has constantly advertised that their injury and illness rates are going down, but that’s because companies have gotten really good at discouraging workers from reporting an injury—a worker is either fired or is told their injury is not work-related,” she said.

Most injuries come from contact with moving machinery, Matt Spencer, director of HR and Safety Programs at the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association in Tucker, Ga., told Bloomberg Law, but deboning equipment can reduce this risk.

“Deboning equipment reduces the amount of manual cutting,” Spencer said. “We’re also seeing improvements regarding personal protective equipment, to reduce fatigue situations.”

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