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IV. Worker Health and Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry

The line is so fast there is no time to sharpen the knife. The knife gets dull and you have to cut harder. That’s when it really starts to hurt, and that’s when you cut yourself.

              —Smithfield Foods meatpacking line worker, Red Springs, North Carolina, December 2003

Nearly every worker interviewed for this report bore physical signs of a serious injury suffered from working in a meat or poultry plant. Their accounts of life in the factories graphically explain those injuries. Automated lines carrying dead animals and their parts for disassembly move too fast for worker safety. Repeating thousands of cutting motions during each work shift puts enormous traumatic stress on workers’ hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and backs. They often work in close quarters creating additional dangers for themselves and coworkers. They often receive little training and are not always given the safety equipment they need. They are often forced to work long overtime hours under pain of dismissal if they refuse.

Meat and poultry industry employers set up the workplaces and practices that create these dangers, but they treat the resulting mayhem as a normal, natural part of the production process, not as what it is—repeated violations of international human rights standards. In addition to employer responsibility, however, some workplace health and safety laws and regulations fall short of international standards. Federal authorities regulate line speed, for example, only in light of two considerations: avoiding adulterated meat and poultry products and not hindering companies’ productivity and profits. Workers’ safety is a non-factor. This is not to suggest that there are specific international standards on line speed, training, or safety equipment in meat and poultry plants; the point is that U.S. law fails to ensure that employers meet international standards of “just and favorable conditions,” “safe and healthy working conditions,” and “standards to minimize the causes of occupational injuries and illnesses,” among others.

Other U.S. safety and health standards that may comport with international norms, such as the “general duty” specified in U.S. law to provide a safe and healthy workplace, are ineffectively enforced. These features of the U.S. occupational health and safety system thus implicate the government in failure to comply with international human rights standards.

International Human Rights Standards and U.S. Law

Workplace health and safety was the subject of the first international labor rights treaty, a 1906 accord among European countries banning manufacture and export of white phosphorus matches deadly to workers who produced them.48 Since then, authoritative international human rights instruments include workplace health and safety as a fundamental right of all workers, including non-citizens.49 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for “just and favourable conditions of work.”50 The United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights specifies “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular . . . safe and healthy working conditions.”51

The International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 155 on occupational safety and health calls for national policies “to prevent accidents and injuries to health . . . by minimizing . . . the causes of hazards inherent in the working environment.” In the NAFTA labor agreement, the United States and its trading partners committed themselves to “prevention of occupational injuries and illnesses” by “prescribing and implementing standards to minimize the causes of occupational injuries and illnesses.”

The human rights standard for workplace safety and health centers on the principle that workers have a right to work in an environment reasonably free from predictable, preventable, serious risks. This does not mean that all countries must immediately adopt the same state-of-the-art technology and safety standards, or go beyond that to eliminate all risk, however major or minor. It does mean that workers in every country have a right to expect that when they go to work and do what they are told to do, that they will be able to leave the workplace at the end of the day with life and limb intact. The UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights invoked “a minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights,” and insisted that such core obligations are “non-derogable.”52

As one expert puts it, human rights violations occur when employers’ intentional actions “expose workers to preventable, predictable, and serious hazards. The fundamental right to be free from these hazards should be guaranteed.”53 Violations also occur when government authorities by action or inaction fail to protect workers’ safety and health, or fail to enforce protections. An authoritative statement interpreting the ICESCR notes:

[T]he obligation to protect [the rights] includes the State’s responsibility to ensure that private entities or individuals, including . . . corporations over which they exercise jurisdiction, do not deprive individuals of their economic, social and cultural rights. States are responsible for violations . . . that result from their failure to exercise due diligence in controlling the behavior of such non-state actors.54

In terms of general statutory language, U.S. law comports with international standards. Like the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, the consumer movement, and other social movements, a broad-based worker health and safety movement led by unions and public health advocates took shape in the 1960s. These campaigners won passage of a comprehensive federal workplace law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the OSH Act).55

The Act empowered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, to set national standards over the patchwork of state and local laws governing workplace safety. The Act also made OSHA the enforcement agency authorized to carry out inspections for noncompliance with standards. OSHA also has power to order “abatement,” i.e., the correction or removal of a health and safety hazard, and to levy fines for violations. OSHA has wide discretion in assessing such penalties, taking into account an employer’s good faith, the seriousness of the violation, the employer’s past history of compliance, the employer’s size, and other factors. OSHA standards cover all workers, including undocumented non-citizen workers.56

Congress also allowed states to adopt “state plans” by which state agencies, rather than the federal OSHA, enforce national standards. This “state plan” or “state OSHA” system was based on the policy assumption that state officials are closer to the ground and can respond more quickly to health and safety problems. But state officials also can be subject to more pressure from large, powerful employers than can federal authorities, who have more insulation from such pressures.57

The OSH Act’s “general duty clause” states: “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”58  But critical issues of implementation still remain. Five thousand workers die on the job each year in the United States, and five million are hurt on the job; many of these are preventable at reasonable cost.59 

Workers’ concern for health and safety on the job is grounded in history. In the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, 146 young women workers perished in a conflagration. They burned alive or jumped to death on the street below because their employer locked the factory exit doors on suspicion they were taking fabric home from work.60 

Such tragedies are not limited to the pre-OSHA period. In 1991, more than twenty years after the adoption of OSHA, twenty-five workers died in a fire at the Imperial Poultry plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. One reason for the high death toll was that their employer had locked the doors on suspicion they were taking chicken parts home from work.61 

The disaster was attributed in part to lax enforcement by state authorities of their OSHA “state plan” program. The director of the North Carolina state plan said his agency was understaffed and that in the eleven years the plant operated, the department never inspected the plant's fire exits, alarms, and sprinkler systems.62  The effects were still felt a decade later:

It can seem, at times, like the town of Hamlet is still afire. In the aftermath came bankruptcies, addiction to painkillers, suicide, murder. All the bullets that followed seemed to backtrack through the smoke, into the building, through the fire. For some, it was fire, then off to the hospital, and not long after the physical healing, right into the small rooms over at the mental ward in Pinehurst.63

This is not meant to suggest that all state plans are weak or that federal safety and health enforcement is always strong. OSHA staffing and budget levels fall far below what would be needed to carry out its responsibilities effectively. Given its limited staff and the number of workplace sites it covers, OSHA inspects less than one percent of U.S. workplaces annually and can inspect any single workplace only once in a century.64  

OSHA is empowered to refer cases of willful employer violations causing worker fatalities to the Justice Department for criminal prosecutions. However, it rarely exercises this power, even when employers repeat the violations and cause more deaths. Moreover, a willful violation causing death is no more than a misdemeanor with a maximum six-month jail term.

A 2003 investigative report in the New York Times found that in the past twenty years, OSHA made criminal referrals to the Justice Department in just 7 percent of more than a thousand workplace death cases due to willful employer violations. The agency shrinks from prosecution by re-labeling violations as “unclassified” rather than “willful.”65 

Meat and Poultry Industry Dangers

Working in the meatpacking or poultry processing industry is notoriously dangerous. Almost every worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report began with the story of a serious injury he or she suffered in a meat or poultry plant, injuries reflected in their scars, swellings, rashes, amputations, blindness, or other afflictions. At least they survived.

On October 9, 2003, thirty-one-year-old Jason Kelly was repairing leaks in “hydrolizer” equipment used to process chicken feathers to make a pet-food additive at Tyson Foods’ River Valley animal feed plant in Texarkana, Texas. The hydrolizer was leaking hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas created by decaying organic matter. According to an OSHA investigator’s report, Tyson did not give Kelly respiratory gear to guard against inhalation of the poison, failed to label hazardous chemicals, and failed to train workers how to detect those chemicals in case of a leak.

Kelly died of asphyxiation, according to a coroner’s report, due to “acute hydrogen sulfide intoxication.” Tyson is contesting an OSHA citation and fine in connection with Kelly’s death, arguing that the cause of death has not been conclusively determined.66

Five weeks after Kelly’s death, on the morning of November 20, 2003, twenty-five-year-old Glen Birdsong was working alone cleaning a holding tank near the loading dock at the Smithfield Foods hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The tank held Mucosa mixed with sodium bisulfite intended for use as a clotting medicine ingredient.67 The hose Birdsong was using got caught in the tank. Birdsong climbed down a ladder to free the hose. Coworkers later found him at the bottom of the ladder unconscious and not breathing. Attempts to resuscitate him failed. He died overcome by fumes inside the tank.68  “They didn’t tell him about the dangers, and they didn’t give him a safety belt to get pulled out of there in case he fell in,” coworkers told Human Rights Watch.69

On March 10, 2004, the North Carolina Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which is authorized under OSHA “state plan” provisions to administer the federal safety law, cited Smithfield for a “serious” violation, namely: “the employer did not inform exposed employees, by posting danger signs or by any other equally effective means, that the tanker was a permit-required confined space and of the danger imposed.”70 On April 19, the state agency fined the company $4,323 for the violation. The fine was reduced after applying a 25 percent discount for the company’s “basic” health and safety program and a 10 percent discount for “minimal employer disruption” of the state’s inspection of the site of Birdsong’s death.71

Anecdotal evidence of the dangers in meat and poultry plants is backed up by hard numbers. The industry has the highest rate of injury and illness in the manufacturing sector. As one Nebraska expert explains:

Despite the hardhats, goggles, earplugs, stainless-steel mesh gloves, plastic forearm guards, chain-mail aprons and chaps, leather weightlifting belts, even baseball catcher’s shin guards and hockey masks . . . the reported injury and illness rate for meatpacking was a staggering 20 per hundred full-time workers in 2001. This is two-and-a-half times greater than the average manufacturing rate of 8.1 and almost four times more than the overall rate for private industry of 7.4.72

A special investigative report in 2003 by the Omaha World-Herald documented death, lost limbs, and other serious injuries in Nebraska meatpacking industry plants since 1999.73  Much of the evidence involved night shift cleaners, most of them undocumented workers. OSHA documents dryly recorded what happened:

  • “Cleaner killed when hog-splitting saw is activated.”
  • “Cleaner dies when he is pulled into a conveyer and crushed.”
  • “Cleaner loses legs when a worker activates the grinder in which he is standing.”
  • “Cleaner loses hand when he reaches under a boning table to hose meat from chain.”
  • “Hand crushed in rollers when worker tries to catch a scrubbing pad that he dropped.”

In all, the report concluded, nearly one hundred night shift cleaning workers in the state meatpacking industry suffered amputations and crushings of body parts in the period (1999-2003) reviewed by the investigative team. These severe injuries are just the tip of an iceberg of thousands of lacerations, contusions, burns, fractures, punctures and other forms of what the medical profession calls traumatic injuries, distinct from the endemic phenomenon in the industry of repetitive stress or musculoskeletal injury.

Eric Schlosser documented a similarly gruesome string of deaths in the mid-1990s:

At the Monfort plant in Grand Island , Nebraska, Richard Skala was beheaded by a dehiding machine. Carlos Vincente . . . was pulled into the cogs of a conveyer belt at an Excel plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, and torn apart. Lorenzo Marin, Sr. fell from the top of a skinning machine . . . struck his head on the concrete floor of an IBP plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and died. . . . Salvador Hernandez-Gonzalez had his head crushed by a pork-loin processing machine at an IBP plant in Madison, Nebraska. At a National Beef plant in Liberal, Kansas, Homer Stull climbed into a blood collection tank to clean it, a filthy tank thirty feet high. Stull was overcome by hydrogen sulfide fumes. Two coworkers climbed into the tank and tried to rescue him. All three men died.74

Part of the Operating System

Slaughtering and carving up animals is inherently dangerous work, but the dangers are accentuated by company operational choices. Profit margins per chicken or per cut of meat are very low, often a few pennies a pound, so competitive advantage rests on squeezing out the highest volume of production in the shortest possible time.

Greater margins exist further along the production and marketing chain where value is added in specialty foods and prepared foods. However, in the basic slaughtering and early-stage processing plants, the employer’s focus on the bottom line all too often sacrifices worker safety and health. As one industry expert says, “The impact of narrow [profit] margins on working conditions for hourly employees at meat and poultry plants is palpable. In the meat and poultry industry, the search for faster and better ways to slaughter and process meat and livestock is relentless.”75

Putting workers at greater risk is sometimes a conscious calculation. In a revealing exchange in a 2003 trial involving an alleged scheme by Tyson Foods to smuggle undocumented immigrant workers into its plants, a Tyson manager described the company’s decision to eliminate a “mid-shift wash down” by dropping room temperature from the high sixties to fifty degrees.76

The wash down was a brief, intensive cleaning operation that allowed workers a short rest while microbe buildup in work areas was eliminated. In the new system, the room was chilled to reduce microbes. The manager testified that Tyson eliminated the wash down and the workers’ brief respite so that “more production can be achieved.”77 He said that upper management rejected his recommendation for freezer suits, better gloves, and other more protective equipment for workers in the new, colder environment.

The impact on the workers was predictable. As the manager testified:

It’s so hard on them, they were complaining of bursitis, arthritis, and increased musculoskeletal problems. And, also, we depended upon our current workers, naturally, to refer us incoming workers, and that stopped because nobody was—people weren’t going home and saying Tyson is a good place to work, they were going home saying we’re freezing.78

Why Is It So Dangerous?

Key features of meat and poultry industry labor make it rife with hazards to life, limb, and health. Here are the chief dangers:

Line Speed

Meatpackers try to maximize the volume of animals that go through the plant by increasing the speed at which animals are processed. The speed of the processing line is thus directly related to profits. However, the fact that line speed is also directly related to injuries has not prompted federal or state regulators to set line speed standards based on health and safety considerations.

The sheer volume and speed of slaughtering operations in the meat and poultry industry create enormous danger. Workers labor amid high-speed automated machinery moving chickens and carcasses past them at a hard to imagine velocity: four hundred head of beef per hour, one thousand hogs per hour, thousands of broilers per hour, all the time workers pulling and cutting with sharp hooks, knives, and other implements.79 

Meat and poultry workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch and by other researchers consistently cite the speed of the lines as the main source of danger. “The chain goes so fast that it doesn’t give the animals enough time to die,” said one beef plant worker.80 Another told of life under her foreman on the line: “‘Speed, Ruth, work for speed!’ he shouted as he stood over me. ‘One cut! One cut! One cut for the skin; one cut for the meat. Get those pieces through!’”81

Another beef slaughterhouse worker described what went on in his plant: “When I started working, there were fifteen chuck boners on each line . . . 380 chain speed [cattle per hour] was considered fast; you had to have sixteen or seventeen chuck boners for that. . . . [later] they were doing 400 an hour, with thirteen or fourteen chuck boners.”82

A 2002 investigative report in the Denver Post described the experience of workers at a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado who “can barely move” at the end of their shift, “exhausted from working on a line that turns live animals into processed meat as fast as six times a minute.”83

Workers told the reporter that “supervisors apply constant pressure to keep the line moving” and described:

[A] world in which they are driven, sometimes insulted and humiliated, to keep the plant’s production up. “From the time you enter, you’re told that if the plant stops 10 minutes, the company will lose I don’t know how many millions of dollars,” said Maria Lilia Almaraz, who earns $10.60 an hours cutting bones from cuts of meat with a razor-sharp blade. “It’s always, faster, faster,” she said.84

In July 2000, Jesus Soto Carbajal was cutting rounds of beef from hindquarters coming down the line at him every six seconds near the end of his shift at Excel Corp.’s meatpacking plant in Schuyler, Nebraska. He was working alone on the line; a coworker had left early. An investigative reporter tells what happened:

No one witnessed the exact moment. Maybe the cuts were taking just that much too long because Soto couldn't pause to sharpen his knife. Maybe the next slab whacked Soto's hand as he turned a beat late.

The wound didn't look that bad. Martin Contreras, still a high-level worker at the plant, had seen gashes gush far more blood. This man will survive, he thought, standing above Soto.

The knife had punctured Soto's chest just above the protective mesh. Above the left collar bone where the jugular vein returns blood from the head to the heart. Within minutes, Soto went from yelling in pain to dazed silence.

Contreras sped behind the ambulance in a manager's car past cornfields and the Last Chance steakhouse to the medical clinic. It turned out there was no need to rush.85

The Associated Press report further noted that:

Excel was not fined for Soto's death because no federal safety standards covered the circumstances that killed him, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. . . . A spokesman for Excel, owned by Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., said the company has outfitted workers with extended safety tunics.86

The speed at which hogs are moved through a pork processing plant was described by a Smithfield manager in testimony at an unfair labor practice trial in 1998-1999. (See Appendix A for a complete description of the production process.)  The manager testified that at the Tar Heel plant it took “between five and ten minutes” from the instant a hog is first slain to the completion of draining, cleaning, cleaving, kidney-popping, fat-pulling, snap-chilling, and other steps before disassembly.87

One interviewed worker from Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel plant told Human Rights Watch:

The line is so fast there is no time to sharpen the knife. The knife gets dull and you have to cut harder. That’s when it really starts to hurt, and that’s when you cut yourself. I cut my hand at the end of my shift, around 10:30 at night.  . . . I went to the clinic the next day at 11:00 a.m. They gave me stitches and told me to come back at 2:30 before the start of my shift to check on the stitches. They told me to go back to work at 3:00. I never stopped working.88

Poultry processing is even more frenzied. Line workers make more than 20,000 repetitive hard cuts in a day’s work. A Mexican woman poultry worker in Northwest Arkansas said:

I came to Arkansas from California in 1994. I started working in chicken lines in 1995. At that time we did thirty-two birds a minute. I took off a year in 1998 when I had a baby. After I came back the line was forty-two birds a minute. People can’t take it, always harder, harder, harder [mas duro, mas duro, mas duro].89

Another woman poultry worker said, “The lines are too fast. The speed is for machines, not for people. Maybe we could do it if every cut was easy, but a lot of the chickens are hard to cut. You have to work the knife too hard. That’s when injuries happen.”90

A male worker with swollen hands apparently fixed in claw-like position said:

I hung the live birds on the line. Grab, reach, lift, jerk. Without stopping for hours every day. Only young, strong guys can do it. But after a time, you see what happens. Your arms stick out and your hands are frozen. Look at me now. I’m twenty-two years old, and I feel like an old man.91

A business journalist summed up poultry labor this way:

It’s difficult, dirty and dangerous. Tasks involve repetitive movements (workers sometimes perform the same motion 30,000 times a shift), and knife-wielding employees work perilously close together as they struggle to keep up with the production line. [OSHA] statistics for 2000 reveal that one out of every seven poultry workers was injured on the job, more than double the average for all private industries. Poultry workers are also 14 times more likely to suffer debilitating injuries stemming from repetitive trauma—like “claw hand” (in which the injured fingers lock in a curled position) and ganglionic cysts (fluid deposits under the skin).92

Senior Tyson Foods officials said that the pace of work in poultry processing plants was consistent with federal regulations. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, they said:

Line speed varies depending on the type of product. Line speed mainly regards evisceration lines, and that is regulated by the USDA. The historical standard was 70 per minute, but it has increased with automation to 120 per minute. It’s all automated now; there is much less hand work. We are constantly trying to automate.93

As the Tyson statement indicates, the federal government is complicit in increasing risks to workers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) assesses permissible line speeds, but solely in terms of food safety considerations, not worker safety. OSHA is responsible for worker safety, but OSHA has not set standards for line speed to protect workers.

As long as USDA inspectors can certify that the product is uncontaminated, line speed can increase with no concern for effects on worker safety. Indeed, sometimes USDA itself encourages faster production. USDA-sponsored time and motion studies found, for example, that “reducing the time required to ‘reach for the next bird’ enabled a worker to remove the oil gland of 36.8 birds per minute rather than a mere 33.0.” USDA time-motion studies also found that “a slicing cut with a six-inch knife enabled one worker to make an opening cut on 45 birds per minute or 2,700 per hour in contrast with only 28.7 birds per minute or 1,722 per hour with a stabbing cut.”94 

One investigative reporter interviewed USDA inspectors “squawking about a change in their procedures, ordered by USDA, to speed up the flow of fowl.” According to the report:

Watching the birds go by . . . some are complaining about an assembly line affliction called “line hypnosis.” They lose awareness and concentration, the birds become just a blurred yellow vision, they say, and some bad ones may slip through. . . The inspectors who oppose the new system argue that public health is being endangered.

Agriculture officials counter that the speedup—as much as 30 percent higher in some cases—was a long-needed effort to improve government efficiency. They say USDA inspectors were actually a drag on an industry churning out one of today's rare supermarket bargains . . . “The way the industry is growing, if they kept the old system, they'd have to add thousands of inspectors to the federal payroll,” said William P. Reonigk of the National Broiler Council, which represents the industry. . . “We just don't want to be the cap on productivity,” said Dr. Donald Houston, a top food safety official with the USDA.

To poultry producers, an extra bird-per-minute or two can mean a difference of hundreds of thousands, or even millions (for the largest plants) of dollars in profits. “A penny a pound to us means $1.6 million a year,” said Edward Covell, president of Bayshore Foods. . . For the inspectors and all the others who toil in chicken land, however, the conveyor belt rolls on inexorably, under the ultimate imperative of the business, as Covell put it, “sell ‘em or smell ‘em.”95

Close-Quarters Cutting

Workers use sharp hooks and knives in close quarters. The height of most disassembly lines and work surfaces, and the space between workers, is usually one-size-fits-all. Workers who are taller or shorter or stouter must make extra efforts, bringing extra risks to them and their coworkers. One worker explained,

We come in all different sizes, but the hooks and the cutting table are the same for everybody. The short ones have to reach more, and they hurt their backs and shoulders. The tall ones have to stoop down more, so they hurt their backs and shoulders. Everybody walks out of the plant hurting at the end of the shift.96

The force and direction of stabs, cuts, jerks and yanks are unpredictable. “Sometimes it’s like butter, sometimes it’s like leather,” explained one Northwest Arkansas poultry worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch, displaying scars on her hands. “Sometimes the only way to make the cut is toward yourself. Everybody is on top of each other, so a lot of people get cut, especially their hands. Or they stick themselves with injection needles [for marinade injection]. Blood and flesh fall into the meat. The birds just keep going.”97 

Heavy Lifting

Despite advances in automation, many jobs in meatpacking involve lifting, shoving, and turning of heavy animals and animal parts, or of saws and other equipment. In poultry, “live hangers” constantly and rapidly lift bunches of chickens from the ground to overhead hooks to begin the slaughtering and disassembly process. Here is how one analyst described live hang labor:

Chicken processing is a dirty business, but no job in a poultry plant is more dreaded than “live hang.” Here, workers known as “chicken hangers” grab birds by their feet and sling them on to fast-moving metal hooks. This is the first—and dirtiest—stage of poultry processing. The birds, weighing approximately five pounds each, fight back by pecking, biting, and scratching the hangers, who wear plastic cones around their forearms to shield off chicken attacks. Then, as workers finally hoist the birds onto the hooks, the chickens urinate and defecate out of desperation, often hitting the workers below.98

Appendix A contains a Smithfield plant manager’s lengthy description of hog processing operations at the Tar Heel, North Carolina plant, where workers kill and cut up twenty-five thousand hogs a day. Among other characteristics of the job, the manager said:

Sometimes some of those hogs will go onto the floor, and a hog may need to be pulled to a location where they can be hoisted back onto the line. . . . There is a lot of heavy lifting and repetitive work you know in that environment depending on the weather because it’s right there by the livestock area.  . . . There are people that tend the scald tub and there are times when hogs become unshackled under the water and the only way to get them out of there is with a long steel hook and pull them to one end and reshackle them back to the line again. That’s a difficult job. Heavy lifting, and that is you know always in a hot work environment. . . . When the hog comes out on the other side it comes onto a conveyor belt type table. At that point again another tough job is that the person that works on that gam table depending on how that hog comes out of there is going to have to flip dead weight, flip that hog from one side to the other if he doesn’t come out with his feet to the right.99

Sullied Work Conditions

Whatever protective equipment they are furnished, workers inevitably come into contact with blood, grease, animal feces, ingesta (food from the animal’s digestive system), and other detritus from the animals they slaughter. A review by Human Rights Watch of a sample of USDA reports on the failure of Nebraska Beef to meet sanitary production standards from 2001 and 2002 showed unsanitary conditions in the plant dangerous to both workers and consumers:

  • “visible ingesta on the brisket areas of carcass sides;”
  • “visible fecal material on the neck, armpit, underneath the foreshanks, and underneath the brisket area of two carcass sides;”
  • “a carcass was observed with an 11½ x 1” fecal contamination smear above the shoulder;”
  • “several pieces of a greenish fecal matter in the belly area;”
  • “a closed rat trap contained a decomposed mouse . . . a backed up floor drain with a grayish and black residue buildup on floor . . . black splattering on boxes of edible product . . . smelled of sewage . . . no rodent windup trap checks during pest control inspection;”
  • “visible yellow ingesta behind the stainless steel shield . . . repetitive drips of water from an overhead inedible auger adjacent to the product.”100

Many workers have painful reactions to conditions, but they do not act for fear of losing their jobs. “I am sick at work with a cold and breathing problems, and my arms are always sore,” a Smithfield worker said. “I have red rashes on my arms and hands, and the skin between my fingers is dry and cracked. I think I have an allergic reaction to the hogs. But I am afraid to say anything about this because I’m afraid they will fire me.”101 

Said another, “Two or three times a year I get infections under my fingernails. I think it’s from the dirty water getting into my gloves. When I go to the clinic they freeze my fingertips and cut out the pus. They don’t write anything down about that or do anything to change it.”102

Slipping and falling in meat and poultry plants’ wet conditions are another commonplace hazard and source of injury. However, workers consistently said that management is indifferent to the problem. Said one Smithfield employee:

In 2002 I slipped on remnants on the floor. I hurt my back, my hips and my leg. My knee turned black and blue and was swollen. I could hardly walk. The company doctor told me I was OK and to go back to work. But I couldn’t stand the pain. I went out on sick leave. The company fired me for missing time. They said they would take me back but only as a new employee on probation with no benefits.103

Here is what former Smithfield worker Melvin Grady told Human Rights Watch in an interview:

I started working at Smithfield on the Kill Floor in July 1993. I worked there for eighteen months, then I went to a knife sharpening job and stayed in knife sharp after that.

I was working second shift in September 2002 when I went upstairs to my lunch at 6:30. When I was coming back, I slipped on the greasy steps and fell to the bottom. I felt a rubber band kind of pop in my leg. I couldn’t feel my toes.

I went to the clinic and told the nurse what happened. I told her I need to see a doctor right away. She said, “I don’t see any blood, so I can’t send you to a doctor.” She didn’t write anything down, she just told me to go back to knife sharp.

I went back and told my supervisor I was going to see a doctor. I limped out to the parking lot and drove home to change. I put an Ace bandage on my ankle and went to the emergency room. They took an x-ray and the nurse said to me, “How did you even get here? Your Achilles tendon is torn. They should have brought you here right away.”104

A health care provider serving poultry industry workers at a medical clinic in Northwest Arkansas summed up the many dangers of working in a plant:

The line speeds are punishing. I see lots of repetitive stress injuries in the neck and upper back, a lot of carpal tunnel in hands and arms. It’s mostly working on the lines and they have to stand up and stretch and hold and pull and cut all day long. That’s a terrible strain from the waist up. But I see leg and knee injuries too from people slipping on the wet surface, fighting to keep their balance. I see cold room syndrome too, people whose hands and joints are affected by working in constant cold.105

Long Hours

Time demands on workers are another factor in health and safety. According to one expert, prolonged work shifts are “clearly less safe for workers than shorter ones,” increasing the risk of accidents. The risk increases at an accelerating rate, so that, according to the same expert, it more than doubles at the end of a twelve-hour shift from what it would be at the end of an eight-hour shift.106

“The last hour of a regular shift is hard,” said a Smithfield worker. “You’re tired and it’s hard to concentrate. Then they tell you to work two hours overtime. That’s when it gets downright dangerous.” At the same time, the same worker conceded: “I want the overtime. People want the overtime. We need the money.”107

U.S. labor law permits employers to require mandatory overtime on pain of dismissal if workers decline, with no limit on the amount of forced overtime. In contrast, most other countries’ laws limit, on a daily or weekly basis, how much overtime can be required of workers without their consent.108  Although overtime must be paid at 150 percent of workers’ regular salary, often called “time-and-a-half” in the United States, most employers prefer to demand overtime to cover staffing shortages and surges in production demands. Using workers already hired and at the worksite on overtime relieves employers of the extra cost of insurance and other benefits for newly-hired employees, training costs, and, in the meat and poultry industry, costs associated with high turnover rates among new employees.

 A health care provider serving poultry industry workers at a medical clinic in Northwest Arkansas told Human Rights Watch:

I see a lot of problems related to heavy mandatory overtime in the poultry plants. Patients tell me they have to work ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. I see lots of psychological problems along with injuries. That relentless overtime causes fatigue and depression in a lot of patients. A lot of them feel guilty because they don’t think they are taking good care of their children. And they’re right. But they have to live with the mandatory overtime or they get fired. Then the kids have problems. What’s really going on here is that the company gets cheap labor, they maximize production, and all the social costs get passed on to the community.109

Inadequate Training and Equipment

Numerous workers told Human Rights Watch that they received minimal training before being put on the job and that the companies were stingy with protective equipment. Company officials however, insist they provide appropriate training. According to three senior Tyson Foods officials: “We give a three to four day orientation and training to new employees, and when they go on the line it’s with a ‘buddy system’ to help them. . . . On muscular-skeletal disorders (MSDs), we make sure employees get it in their language. They may not have been aware of the risks.”110

Responding in writing to questions from Human Rights Watch, Smithfield officials said:

Various training programs are conducted in both English and Spanish, to include:

  • New Hire Orientation—provided a general overview of our safety rules, OSHA programs, accident reporting, workers compensation and our on-site medical team for treatment.

  • On the Job Training—this includes understanding the proper usage of tools and equipment, personal protective equipment required for specific jobs and emergency evacuation routes.

  • Monthly Safety Topics—each month using a “train the trainer” approach, all production employees hear about an OSHA topic and/or a company safety process/rule/expectations.111

    Many workers told Human Rights Watch their training was scant: “They showed us a video and then told us to do what the person next to us is doing,” was a common description of training programs in all three meat businesses. Many experienced workers said that they were not given time or opportunity to train new colleagues, and that employers do not offer any additional pay for taking responsibility for training new workers. Some variant of a statement such as “production is everything” was the common refrain.

    Measures on personal safety equipment are applied inconsistently in different plants, workers told Human Rights Watch. Some companies make workers pay for equipment through wage deductions. Others supply equipment initially, but then make workers pay for replacements. The industry has resisted, so far successfully, proposals to require them to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) at no cost to employees. OSHA proposed a rule containing such a requirement in 1999, but the Bush administration froze action on the proposal after taking office, and nothing has been done to adopt the new PPE standard.112

    In one instance related by a worker at Smithfield Foods’ hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, the company refused to provide equipment the employee said was needed for personal protection:

    I pull ribs with my fingers on the packing ribs line. My fingers and nails are in constant pain because the company won’t give us hooks to pull the ribs, and they won’t let us bring our own hooks. We need hooks to pull the meat more easily and to avoid injuries. But they say that meat gets lost using hooks, and using fingers pulls more meat, so no hooks. The line after us gets to use hooks, but the workers have to buy their own hooks—the company won’t provide them.113

    Cleaning workers who use hazardous chemicals in a variety of plants in the Northwest Arkansas chicken processing industry told OSHA investigators:

  • The company gives me gloves and goggles. I have to buy my own boots. I don’t know what the chemicals are that we use. I have not received any training on how to use the chemicals for cleaning the machines. I have not seen any videos to learn about dangers in my work.

  • The company has never given me orientation on where the emergency exits are. They just gave me a pair of gloves on the first day and send me to work.

  • We saw a video on how to do the cleaning but it did not have any information on how to protect ourselves with the use of chemical products or any protection in general. I know the chemicals are dangerous because I saw a coworker lose his sight when the chemicals sprayed in his eye, not because my supervisors told me of the dangers.114

    One worker, when asked if, prior to handling chemicals, she had read Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), forms which U.S. employers are required by law to furnish to all employees informing them of potentially hazardous substances in their work, replied: “I don’t know the names of the chemicals. My supervisors mix them for us. I have no idea what an MSDS is. I have never seen one.  Nobody has explained to me about the chemicals we use in our work. I don’t know what they are.”115

    Corporate practices can increase or reduce the dangers workers face. Employers can enhance or limit the ability of workers to protect themselves. Workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch consistently expressed the view that the companies care more about the condition of the animals being slaughtered than of the workers doing the slaughtering. Our research reveals an industry where pressure to maximize production brings widespread injury, and where government agencies themselves give production priority over worker safety.

    In an interview with Human Rights Watch, three senior Tyson Foods officials gave this account of the company’s approach to health and safety:

    We have ongoing training and safety committees. We devote a lot of resources to health and safety. We have forty health and safety specialists who go out to the plants, do walk-throughs, interview employees, sometimes one-on-one confidentially . . . sit down with operations managers, write safety plans, put the plans in place, set goals etc. We have a toll-free number for health and safety problems.116

    Responding in writing to questions from Human Rights Watch, Smithfield officials said:

    The Company ensures that all employees are provided a healthy and safe work environment. We have established a safety culture that influences safe behavior through shared beliefs, practices and attitudes. Education, training and accountability are the key ingredients to our programs.117

    Workers’ views contrasted sharply with those of employers. A Smithfield worker interviewed by health and safety researchers said, “Management puts all the blame on employees when they get hurt. When I got hurt, my supervisor kept asking me what I did wrong. They don’t get to the root of the problem, the conditions in the plant. They are more interested in covering up accidents than helping people who get hurt.”118

    A Nebraska Beef worker told Human Rights Watch:

    The company had a safety committee but it was a joke. It was all supervisors plus a couple of workers who are their relatives. They didn’t pay any attention to what we said. They had no respect for the worker. Once the company got fined for safety violations and the manager told us: “Be careful or we’ll have to pay more fines”—not be careful because you might get hurt.119

    The Struggle over an Ergonomics Standard

    Physically demanding work does not in and of itself raise human rights alarm. But alarm sounds when the following elements come into play:

    • hazards associated with such work are proven by scientific study;
    • employers and government know the hazards;
    • the hazards are preventable with economically feasible health and safety precautions and practices;
    • employers and the government refuse to take such measures, and injuries or death result.

    The force required for sawing, cutting, slicing, lifting, pulling, and other physical efforts thousands of times each day is the major source of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) prevalent in many industries and endemic in the meat and poultry industry. More than a million workers suffer injuries from repetitive motions at their work stations each year in the United States.120  Meat packing plants have the highest rate of MSDs, seven times the average incidence rate in manufacturing.121

    Relying on studies by the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific sources, OSHA found that hazards in the meat and poultry industry and other sectors marked by labor intensive, repetitive work constitute “material harm” and “significant risk” to workers. The resulting disorders cause “persistent and severe pain” and “where preventive action . . . is not provided, these disorders can result in permanent damage to musculoskeletal tissues, causing such disabilities as the inability to use one’s hands to perform even the minimal tasks of daily life, permanent scarring, and arthritis.”122  New evidence suggests that repetitive stress causes permanent bone and tissue damage.123 

    After years of study, OSHA proposed an “ergonomics” standard to be incorporated into U.S. workplace safety regulations.The word comes from two Greek words: ergos, meaning work, and nomos, meaning laws. In simple language this means fitting the job to the people who have to do it, through the design of equipment and procedures. Ergonomics may also be referred to as biotechnology, human engineering, and human factors engineering.124 The ergonomics standard was intended to cover a range of industries identified as rife with ergonomic hazards, including the meat and poultry industry, nursing homes, construction, warehouses, and others.

    The OSHA standard summarized evidence and set out detailed steps employers must take to reduce MSD hazards.125 OSHA’s standard called for enhanced information and training for workers, employee involvement in prevention programs, improvements in engineering and work station design, and measures like job rotation, slower work pace, and more frequent rest breaks for workers at risk.

    The Clinton administration adopted the OSHA ergonomics standard in January 2001, but the incoming Bush administration and the new Congress immediately eliminated it, responding to fierce employer opposition to mandatory OSHA ergonomic regulations.126  Supporters of the repeal called instead for voluntary guidelines, not binding rules, arguing that voluntary measures would adequately protect workers.127 

    The controversy reflects typical policy tensions between regulation and deregulation, between enforceable legal standards and voluntary guidelines. But it also raises a fundamental human rights issue: whether government will establish and apply rules to afford workers their recognized international human right to a safe and healthy workplace, or whether it will shrink from this responsibility and leave work conditions to the discretion of employers. Such government abdication of its responsibility is particularly troubling when the record clearly demonstrates that employers are not willing to meet their own human rights responsibility to ensure workers’ safety and health.

    Smithfield Foods management described its approach to ergonomics as follows in a written statement to Human Rights Watch:

    Ergonomics—This is an on-going process within the organization. We teach new hires the basic principles of ergonomics. The location Safety Manager in conjunction with the Director of Safety, Maintenance, Engineering and Plant Management perform periodic Ergonomic assessments on jobs throughout the facility. Ergonomic job assessments may be chosen randomly or from injury records to take a pro-active approach to reducing cumulative trauma disorders. To this end, in the event of a CTD [cumulative trauma disorder] injury the medical staff makes recommendations to both the employee and management team to reduce future injuries and risks.128

    Despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the hazards to workers in meat and poultry processing and other repetitive, stress-based labor, corporations frequently dismiss MSD cases as “anecdotes” and attribute the problem to workers’ lifestyle and “confounding factors” like housework, vitamin consumption, sports activities, and working on cars at home.129  In its comments on the proposed OSHA ergonomics standard, Tyson Foods said that many of its recorded injuries arise from “subjective complaints of aches and pain.”130  The company went on to say:

    There are no magic fixes for repetitive jobs . . . as long as employees continue to perform repetitive manual tasks, some employees will develop OSHA recordable cases. As employees age, become pregnant, or engage in non-work-related personal hobbies, some employees will simply be more prone to MSD symptoms despite our best efforts. 131

    OSHA responded that:

    The testimony of injured workers . . . is particularly probative in demonstrating how MSDs significantly affect people’s lives. For this, statistics, epidemiological data, and other evidence are not alone sufficient. The testimony of these workers puts a human face on the pain and suffering experienced every day by workers who suffer from these injuries. It also convincingly demonstrates that MSDs are not everyday “aches and pains” experienced by all, but serious, disabling conditions.132

    In contrast to OSHA’s findings, a business-sponsored research institute at George Mason University articulated employers’ concerns, putting the corporate view in sharp relief:

    [E]mployee rotation, slower work pace, or increased rest breaks … is intended to impose costs on employers rather than employees … it reduces employee incentives to take responsibility for their own safety and creates further incentives for spurious claims of injury … Without regard to the impacts of such measures on productivity or profitability, achieving compliance with the rule [i.e. the proposed OSHA standard] could shackle a company.133

    Reflecting the same view, the Bush administration issued its voluntary ergonomics guidelines in 2002.134 According to one news report on the guidelines, the administration insisted that they “are advisory in nature, that they don’t impose any new legal requirements, and that there is no obligation to follow them. And, just to be sure, it adds that they ‘are not a new standard or regulation.’”135 The administration established a new Advisory Committee and called for more research on a subject already exhaustively studied with consistently conclusive results.

    Scientists, who had carried out the massive research relied on by OSHA in issuing the 2000 standard, organized a boycott of the advisory committee and termed the administration’s call for more research a stalling tactic. “We were invited to participate in a symposium that isn’t necessary,” said the dean of the School of Health and Environment at the University of Massachusetts. “It’s called paralysis by analysis,” said a University of Michigan industrial engineer who has studied ergonomics for thirty years. “By and large, everyone on the committee was selected because of their opposition to the ergonomic standard,” said a University of California bioengineer (including, for example, a hand surgeon who regularly testifies for employers in workers’ compensation cases and argues that musculoskeletal pain is caused by depression). “It’s a political show, not a scientific meeting,” said another university researcher who declined to identify himself for fear of losing federal grant support.136

    In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Dr. Barbara Silverstein, a former OSHA official now with the State of Washington’s Department of Labor and Industry and a leading U.S. expert on workplace injuries in the meatpacking industry, said:

    The politics of ergonomics are such that opponents of a standard that will actually help the situation push psycho-social components, saying it’s the person, not the job. But you can’t separate psycho-social components from the workload. The way work is organized, the quality of the tools, the force and repetition in the job along with line speed, these are the main factors. There is just not enough recovery time between motions. . . . There is enough information out there for action. This is a total stall tactic.137

    Underreporting of Injuries

    OSHA administrators and independent researchers have found a common corporate practice of underreporting injuries of all kinds. One recent estimate puts the undercount of nonfatal occupational injuries across industrial sectors as high as 69 percent.138  Findings by OSHA-supported research in preparing the ergonomics standards confirmed assertions by many workers and advocates interviewed by Human Rights Watch that there is substantial underreporting of MSD injuries. According to OSHA, the reported data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

    [S]eriously understate the true risk . . . the data only capture those MSD injuries reported by employers as lost workday injuries. MSDs that force an employee to be temporarily assigned to alternate duty, as well as those MSDs not reported to employers by employees or not recorded by employers, are not included in those risk estimates. . . . The actual risks attributable to occupational exposure to ergonomic risk factors may be much higher than is indicated by BLS statistics. Many peer-reviewed studies have been published in the scientific literature in the last 18 years that document the underreporting of MSDs on OSHA Logs . . . These studies document extensive and widespread underreporting on the OSHA Log of occupational injuries and illnesses in general.139

    In interviews with Human Rights Watch, Nebraska Beef workers suggested reasons for the extent of injury underreporting in meatpacking plants. “The company hates to report an injury to OSHA or to workers’ comp,” explained one worker,

    They love you if you’re healthy and you work like a dog, but if you get hurt you are trash. If you get hurt, watch out. They will look for a way to get rid of you before they report it. They will find a reason to fire you, or put you on a worse job like in the cold room, or change your shift so you quit. So a lot of people don’t report their injuries. They just work with the pain.140

    Another worker reported: “There’s a lot of macho too. The young guys especially don’t like to admit they got hurt. They want to show they’re tough so they keep working. They don’t want to get teased, ‘you just wanted to get light duty.’”141

    Many companies tie injury reporting rates to management bonuses. Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation noted that “the annual bonuses of plant foremen and supervisors are often based on the injury rate of their workers. Instead of creating a safer workplace, these bonus schemes encourage slaughterhouse managers to make sure that accidents and injuries go unreported.”142

    Tyson Foods officials told Human Rights Watch:

    Health and safety is part of the management “scorecard” for ratings and bonuses. We manage injury claims through internal experience-rating, allocating costs back to individual plants, and we educate management on insurance premiums and their effect on profit and loss, and on managers’ bonuses.143

    Smithfield Foods management told Human Rights Watch that when a worker is hurt, “the company requests that the employee fill out an injury/accident investigation report.”144 That is, it is up to the worker to initiate the reporting process. But some workers cannot read the form. Many workers are not comfortable filling out a form that they believe the company will be angry at them about. As one worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch said:

    We had safety problems all the time. Every three or four days someone got hurt real bad. The company just fired people when they got hurt, even for small injuries or if you got sick. Most people just shut up. They didn’t report injuries and they came to work sick. They know there are always new people who want jobs.145

    Smithfield officials went on to say, “This report is then reviewed by the safety department … the medical department completes all required paperwork indicating, by OSHA standards, whether the injury is First Aid only or a Recordable injury. . . . We assess all claims to ensure they are truly work related.”146

    Many meat and poultry companies maintain health personnel, usually nurses and physicians’ assistants, in plant clinics. Smithfield describes its groups as a “Medical Management Team—this is a team of trained medical professionals to assist both in medical management and treatment and risk/injury avoidance.”147 Many interviewed workers, however, saw the plant clinics as an arm of management. They claim that the clinics fail to take injuries seriously and seem to be more interested in ensuring that workers do not have “an excuse” to stop working.

    Workers described Smithfield’s clinic as part of the company’s personnel office administering its “point” system for attendance. Under the system, employees accumulate points for “occurrences”—absences and late arrivals. Having twelve occurrences in a rolling twelve-month period results in termination. One worker explained,

    I work on the cut floor. My job is throwing waste fat into a combo. I have intense pain in my neck, shoulder, and arm. The supervisor won’t move me. Some days I cry the whole time, it hurts so bad. I use muscle cream but the pain continues. I want to have x-rays but I’m afraid the insurance won’t pay for it. I am still getting hospital bills from an earlier injury. I’m afraid to miss work to recover because they will fire me for absenteeism [because she would accumulate points under the company’s attendance policy]. I have to work to support my three children.148

    Government Records and Industry Manipulation of Injury Reports

    Underreporting of meat and poultry industry injuries has been exacerbated since 2002 by another government action. In 2002, OSHA scrapped the more detailed “200 form” in use for many years to report workplace injuries and replaced it with a new “300 form.” The earlier form required specific reporting on MSD-type injuries; the new form eliminated that column. This change and other methodological changes suddenly and dramatically lowered the “incidence rate” of injuries per hundred workers in the meat and poultry industry.

    The meat and poultry industry exploited this change to falsely boast of improved safety results. Here is how a January 14, 2004 press release from the American Meat Institute characterized the new data:

    New figures just released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal a continuing and dramatic decline in accidents and injury rates in the nation's meat and poultry processing facilities, according to data updating BLS year-end 2002 statistics.

    The industry's overall rate of what BLS data identify as “Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses” has declined to 11.5 incidents per 100 workers per year, compared with a rate of 21.5 in 1996. For example, in 1996 a meat industry worker had slightly worse than a one-in-five chance of incurring an injury significant enough to be recorded. At the end of 2002, those odds had improved to nearly one in 10.

    “These data show clearly that our efforts to improve worker and workplace safety in the industry continue to bear fruit,” said Dan McCausland, AMI director of worker safety and human resources. “In fact, when the current data are compared with those from seven years earlier, the rate of recordable safety incidents has been reduced by nearly one-half.”149

    This meat industry press release misleadingly used 1996 as a base year. It cited an incidence rate of 21.5 per hundred workers in 1996 and claimed a nearly 50 percent drop in injury rates, to 11.5 per hundred workers, in a six-year period ending in 2002. But the injury rate in 2001—the year before—was twenty per hundred workers, nearly equal to the 21.5 figure of 1996. Only the change in BLS methods for calculating the incidence rate cut the rate in half. A 50 percent drop in meat and poultry industry injury rates in a single year would be implausible, but reaching back six years creates an impressive but fictitious improvement in plant safety. The industry’s press release also failed to mention the disclaimer that BLS put in a highlighted box on the front page of its 2002 report, namely:

    Revisions to the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses

    Effective January 1, 2002, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revised its requirements for recording occupational injuries and illnesses. The BLS Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, the primary source for the estimates of occupational injuries and illnesses in this release, is based on employers’ records of injuries and illnesses. Due to the revised recordkeeping rule, the estimates from the 2002 survey are not comparable with those from previous years.150

    [48] See Steve Charnovitz, “Fair Labor Standards and International Trade,” 20 Journal of World Trade Law 62 (1986).

    [49] See Appendix B for a comprehensive statement of international human rights standards on workplace health and safety.

    [50] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dec. 10, 1948, art. 23 (1), GA resolution 217 A (III), full text available online at:, accessed on November 17, 2004.

    [51] International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, art. 7, entered into force Jan. 3 1976, full text available online at:, accessed on November 17, 2004.

    [52] See Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 3, UN ESCOR, 1990, UN Doc. E/1991/23, para. 10

    [53] See Emily A. Spieler, “Risks and Rights: The Case for Occupational Safety and Health as a Core Worker Right,” in James A. Gross, ed., Workers’ Rights as Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

    [54] See Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1997), available online at:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

    [55] For a concise history of the movement for the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s passage, see Judson MacLaury, “The Job Safety Law of 1970: Its Passage Was Perilous,” Monthly Labor Review (U.S. Department of Labor, March 1981), also available online (on the Labor Department’s website) at:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

    [56] See David S. North, “Labor Market Rights of Foreign-Born Workers,” Monthly Labor Review, May 1982, p. 32-3.

    [57] Thus, for example, as detailed below in footnotes 66-71 and accompanying text, Smithfield Foods faced a fine of $4,323 from North Carolina state OSHA in connection with the November 2003 death of Glen Birdsong in the Tar Heel hog slaughtering plant, while Tyson Foods faced a federal OSHA fine of $436,000 in the October 2003 death of Jason Kelly under similar circumstances in Tyson’s Texarkana, Texas plant. Smithfield paid the fine; Tyson announced it would contest the fine.

    [58] See 29 U.S.C. §651-678, Sec. 5.

    [59] See U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (2002). For a comprehensive, solidly researched and source-cited review of the status of workers’ health and safety in the United States from labor’s perspective, see AFL-CIO, “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect; A National and State-by-State Profile of Worker Safety and Health in the United States,” 13th edition, April 2004.

    [60] See David Von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003); see also a detailed website on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire at Cornell University’s Catherwood Library, available online at:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

    [61] See Associated Press, “Food plant fire kills 25; exits blocked; disaster: chicken workers in North Carolina are trapped in a facility that had never been inspected for safety,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1991, p. A4; Scott Bronstein, “‘They treated us like dogs,’ say workers at plant where 25 died; Bitter employees say conditions at poultry facility were unsafe,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, September 5, 1991, p. 6; “Plant safety largely ignored, report says; Company, government agencies blamed for fatal N.C. fire,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, December 4, 1991, p. 3.

    [62] See Ronald Smothers, “North Carolina Plant Is Fined $808,150 in Fatal Fire,” New York Times, December 31, 1991, p. A12.

    [63] See Wil Haygood, “Still Burning; After a Deadly Fire, a Town's Losses Were Just Beginning,” Washington Post, November 10, 2002, p. F1, detailing the scope of the human and community tragedy in the wake of the Imperial Poultry fire.

    [64] Specifically, once every 115 years. See Center for American Progress, “The Bush Administration and the Dismantling of Public Safeguards” (May 2004), p. 78, available online at:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

    [65] See David Barstow, “When Workers Die: U.S. Rarely Seeks Charges for Deaths in Workplace – A Culture of Reluctance,” New York Times, December 22, 2003, p. A1.

    [66] See Christopher Leonard, “$436,000 Citation Disputed by Tyson,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 27, 2004, p. Business 1.

    [67] Mucosa is mucous membrane material taken from a hog’s stomach, intestines and other innards. For a picture of Mucosa, see:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

    [68] See Jefferson Weaver, “Man dies in Smithfield mishap,” Bladen Journal, November 21, 2003, p. 1; Matt Leclercq, “Officials investigate Smithfield Packing death,” Fayetteville Observer, November 23, 2003, p. 1.

    [69] Human Rights Watch interviews, St. Pauls, North Carolina, December 9, 2003.

    [70] See North Carolina Department of Labor, Division of Occupational Safety and Health, “Citation and Notification of Penalty,” March 10, 2004, on file with Human Rights Watch.

    [71] See North Carolina Department of Labor, “Fully Executed Settlement Agreement,” file no. 307215731, April 19, 2004.

    [72] See Donald D. Stull, “Testimony against Nebraska Legislative Bills 586 and 725,” February 24, 2003. (Supported by employers, these bills would reduce workers’ coverage and benefits under Nebraska’s workers’ compensation statute).

    [73] See Jeremy Olson and Steve Jordon, “Special Report: The Job of Last Resort,” Omaha World-Herald, October 12, 2003, p. 1A; see also Laurie Kelliher, “A Meat Story, Well Done: How the Omaha World-Herald Inspected a Tough Local Industry,” Columbia Journalism Review, January 2004, p. 14.

    [74] See Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, p. 178.

    [75] See Steve Bjerklie, “On the Horns of a Dilemma: The U.S. Meat and Poultry Industry,” in Stull, Broadway and Griffith, eds., Any Way You Cut It: Meat Processing and Small-Town America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995). Bjerklie was editor of Meat&Poultry, the business journal of the meat and poultry industry in North America.

    [76] See Trial Transcript, United States v. Tyson Foods et. al., U.S. District Court, Eastern District Tennessee, Case No. CR-4-01-61 (February 13, 2003), p. 1063 ff (Tyson Trial Transcript).  The trial involved charges that Tyson Foods and some of its executives were involved in a scheme to smuggle undocumented immigrants into Tyson plants. A jury acquitted the company and the company officials, agreeing with their defense that the scheme was the work of a few rogue managers and did not reflect company policy or responsibility. The full exchange between the federal prosecutor and the Tyson manager is contained in Appendix E.

    [77] Ibid.

    [78] Ibid.

    [79] On line speed and working conditions generally, see Donald D. Stull and Michael J. Broadway, Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry of North America (New York: Wadsworth Publishers, 2003); Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, p. 169 ff.; Gail A. Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997); Joby Warrick, “They Die Piece by Piece,” Washington Post, April 10, 2001, p. A1; Marc Linder, “I Gave My Employer a Chicken that Had No Bone: Joint Firm-State Responsibility for Line-Speed-Related Occupational Injuries,” 46 Case Western Reserve Law Review 33 (Fall 1995).

    [80] Quoted in Karen Olsson, “The Shame of Meatpacking,” The Nation, September 16, 2002, p. 11.

    [81] See Deborah Fink, Cutting Into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 24-25.

    [82] Quoted in Olsson, “The Shame of Meatpacking,” p. 11.

    [83] See Michael Riley, “Woes at Swift blamed on pace, Speed valued above all else, workers say,” Denver Post, November 26, 2002, p. A1.

    [84] Ibid.

    [85] See Justin Pritchard, “Worker's death in a Midwest town transformed by immigrant laborers,” Associated Press wire story, March 13, 2004.

    [86] Ibid.

    [87] Tyson Trial Transcript, p. 1112 ff.

    [88] Human Rights Watch interview, Red Springs, North Carolina, December 9, 2003. In interviews excerpted in this subsection, workers asked not to be identified. Where dates of hire and/or termination, or precise descriptions of their injuries, might tend to identify them, the dates are not included, and the injury is characterized in a more general manner.

    [89] Human Rights Watch interview, Rogers, Arkansas, August 15, 2003.

    [90] Human Rights Watch interview, Bentonville, Arkansas, August 15, 2003.

    [91] Human Rights Watch interview, Rogers, Arkansas, August 14, 2003.

    [92] See Nicholas Stein, “Son of a Chicken Man: As he struggles to remake his family’s poultry business into a $24 billion meat behemoth, John Tyson must prove he has more to offer than the family name,” Fortune, May 13, 2002, p. 136.

    [93] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with three senior Tyson Foods managers in Springdale, Arkansas: Ken Kimbro, senior vice president, Human Resources; Archie Shaffer, sr. vice president, Government Affairs/Public Relations; LaDonna Bornhoft, sr. vice president, Risk Management, December 17, 2003.

    [94] See Linder, “I Gave My Employer a Chicken that Had No Bone,” p. 70.

    [95] See Kathy Sawyer, “On the Chicken Line; Trying to Catch the Bad Ones, Quickly; Slaughter Inspectors Fight the Blur of Production Line . . . While Checking Chickens,” Washington Post, September 2, 1979, p. A1.

    [96] Human Rights Watch interview, Rogers, Arkansas, August 13, 2003.

    [97] Human Rights Watch interview, Bentonville, Arkansas, August 14, 2003. Meat adulteration and safety are not direct subjects of this report, which focuses on workers’ rights. For more information on food safety, see the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service at For information from a non-governmental organization, see the Consumer Federation of America’s food safety web site at:

    [98] See Russell Cobb, “The Chicken Hangers,” In The Fray (online publication), February 2, 2004, available online at:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

    [99] See In the Matter of Smithfield Packing Company, Inc.-Tar Heel Division and United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 204, AFL-CIO (February 16, 1999) (Smithfield Hearing Transcript), p. 3826-3850.

    [100] See USDA Noncompliance Reports (on file with Human Rights Watch).

    [101]  Human Rights Watch interview with a worker from Chiapas, Mexico, Red Springs, North Carolina, December 17, 2003.

    [102] Human Rights Watch interview with a Smithfield worker, Lumberton, North Carolina, January 14, 2004.

    [103] Human Rights Watch interview with a Smithfield worker, St. Pauls, North Carolina, October 25, 2003.

    [104] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Melvin Grady (who is from Fayetteville , North Carolina), February 13, 2004.

    [105] Human Rights Watch interview, Northwest Arkansas, August 15, 2003.

    [106] See Bureau of National Affairs, “Potential for Accidents Increased by Prolonged Work Shifts, Researcher Says,” Daily Labor Report, May 3, 2004, p. C1 (citing presentation and research by Prof. Simon Folkard).

    [107] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Red Springs, Arkansas, April 29, 2004.

    [108] See, for example, Donald C. Dowling, Jr., “From the Social Charter to the Social Action Program 1995-1997: European Union Employment Law Comes Alive,” 29 Cornell International Law Journal 43 (1996).

    [109] Human Rights Watch interview, Northwest Arkansas, August 15, 2003.

    [110] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Tyson Foods managers, December 17, 2003.

    [111] See “Company Position on Unions and Organizing Drive,” a written reply to Human Rights Watch from Smithfield Foods management, January 30, 2004 (on file with Human Rights Watch). Smithfield’s responses were furnished to Human Rights Watch by Jerry Hostetter, vice president, Investor Relations and Corporate Communications.

    [112] See Bureau of National Affairs, “Unions, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Call on Chao to Issue Rulemaking on PPE,” Daily Labor Report, April 14, 2003, p. A5.

    [113] Human Rights Watch interview with a Smithfield Foods worker, Lumberton, North Carolina, December 13, 2003.

    [114] See affidavits signed by workers for presentation to OSHA investigators, May 2003, on file with Human Rights Watch. Names are not given here for workers’ security concerns.

    [115] Ibid.

    [116] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Tyson Foods managers, December 17, 2003.

    [117] See “Company Position on Unions and Organizing Drive,” a written reply to Human Rights Watch from Smithfield Foods management, January 30, 2004 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

    [118] This worker suffered a serious injury in early 2003. Human Rights Watch interview, October 22, 2003.

    [119] Human Rights Watch interview, Omaha, Nebraska, July 15, 2003.

    [120] See National Academy of Sciences, Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2001).

    [121] See Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Meatpacking plants have the highest rate of repeated-trauma disorders,” Monthly Labor Report, August 5, 1999.

    [122] See OSHA ergonomics standard, Final Rule, Federal Register, vol. 65, no. 220 (November 14, 2000), 68752-68760 (OSHA ergonomics standard).

    [123] See Bureau of National Affairs, “Study Finds Highly Repetitive Work Tasks Can Cause Bone Damage, Early Symptoms,” Daily Labor Report, November 17, 2003, p. A-6, citing a study by Temple University researchers finding a direct relationship between repetitive, low force movement and the inflammation of muscles, bone, nerves, and connective tissue. The study, titled “Repetitive, Negligible Force Reaching in Rats Induces Pathological Overloading of Upper Extremity Bones,” is in vol. 18, no. 11 of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research  (November 11, 2003).

    [124] For further definition and discussion, see the Cornell University environmental health and safety website, available at:  

    [125] See OSHA ergonomics standard, 68752-68760.

    [126] See Rachel Smolkin, “Bush Signs Repeal of Clinton’s Workplace Safety Rules,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 21, 2001, p. A14.

    [127] See Steven Greenhouse, “Rules’ Repeal Heightens Workplace Safety Battle,” The New York Times, March 12, 2001, p. 12.

    [128] Smithfield Foods response to Human Rights Watch inquiry, received as e-mail attachment, January 30, 2004.

    [129] See promotional materials of the business coalition opposed to an ergonomics standard, the National Coalition on Ergonomics, at (listing Tyson Foods as one of forty-five named corporate endorsers joined by more than 250 organizations nationwide).

    [130] See OSHA proposed ergonomics standard, Comment of Tyson Foods, Inc., Docket No. S-777, Ex. 30-4137, 2.

    [131] Ibid.

    [132] See OSHA ergonomics standard, 68753.

    [133] See “Comment” of the Regulatory Studies Program of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University on the draft ergonomics standard (undated), available online at:, accessed on November 16, 2004.

    [134] See Elizabeth Shogren, “White House Will Leave Job Safety to Employers,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2002, p. A1; Matthew Miller, “Rules for Job Safety Will Be Voluntary,” Newsday, April 6, 2002, p. A7; Caroline E. Mayer, “Guidelines, Not Rules, on Ergonomics,” Washington Post, April 6, 2002, p. E1.

    [135] See Cindy Skrzycki, “Alarm Over a Sheepish Non-rule,” Washington Post, October 29, 2002, p. E1.

    [136] See David Kohn, “Ergonomic experts boycott conference; Leading scientists accuse government of distorting science for political ends,” The Baltimore Sun, January 26, 2004, p. 3A.

    [137] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Barbara Silverstein, February 10, 2004.

    [138] See J. Paul Leigh, Ph.D., James P. Marcin, M.D., M.P.H. and Ted R. Miller, Ph.D., “An Estimate of the U.S. Government’s Undercount of Nonfatal Occupational Injuries,” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, vol. 46, no. 1, January 2004.

    [139] See OSHA ergonomics standard, Final Rule, Federal Register, vol. 65, No. 220, November 14, 2000, 68752-68760.

    [140] Human Rights Watch interview with a Nebraska Beef worker, Omaha, Nebraska, July 16, 2003.

    [141] Human Rights Watch interview with another Nebraska Beef worker, Omaha, Nebraska, July 16, 2003.

    [142] See Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, p. 175.

    [143] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Tyson foods managers, December 17, 2003.

    [144] Smithfield response to Human Rights Watch inquiry, received as e-mail attachment, January 30, 2004

    [145] Human Rights Watch interview, St. Pauls, North Carolina, December 10, 2003.

    [146] Smithfield response to Human Rights Watch inquiry, received as e-mail attachment, January 30, 2004

    [147] Ibid.

    [148] Human Rights Watch interview with a Smithfield worker, Red Springs, North Carolina, December 14, 2003. The company’s attendance policy states: “When an employee, due to their own illness, misses two (2) or more consecutive scheduled work days . . . the employee will be considered as having one (1) occurrence.” See “Attendance Policy, Tar Heel Division” (undated, underlined in original) (on file with Human Rights Watch).

    [149] See American Meat Institute, “Latest Labor Department data show industry’s safety record continued to improve,” AMI press release, January 14, 2004 (available in “archives” at AMI website,

    [150] See U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Workplace Injuries and Illnesses in 2002” (December 18, 2003), available online at:, accessed on November 17, 2004 (emphasis added).

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