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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -
Poultry is big business in Alabama. The industry accounts for more than $2 million and more than 80,000 jobs.
According to a new report by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center, employees at some of the 25 processing plants across the state are overworked, injured and intimidated.
"It's based on interviews with over 300 current and former poultry workers all over the state of Alabama talking about working conditions, health and safety issues, safety equipment, sexual harassment and a number of other things," said SPLC staff attorney Tom Fritzsche.
Seventy-nine percent of the respondents said they "are not allowed to take bathroom breaks when needed." (Some workers chose to urinate on themselves rather than ask to leave the line.)
The survey also found that "17 percent of workers...suffered a cut serious enough to require some medical attention. Company nurses often just gave workers Band-aids...and sent them back to the processing line."
Former poultry plant worker Natashia Ford remembers deplorable conditions.
"The chicken juice is slashing on your face, in your ears and mouth because you don't have proper mask," she recalls. "Sometimes the chicken would fall off the line on the floor. All they do is re-hang them and do it all over again."
According to the report, "OSHA, which regulates the health and safety of workers in this country, has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers."
OSHA spokesperson Michael D'aquino responded with this statement:
"OSHA has regulations to protect workers in poultry plants from hazards such as amputations, slips, falls, knife cuts, hazardous chemicals in the plants (ammonia , chlorine, etc,) locked doors--doors cannot prevent exit, and OSHA has the general duty clause that says an employer has a responsibility to provide a workplace free of recognized serious hazards. Clearly, the faster the pace workers have to do their jobs, the higher the risk for injury."
As for Natashia Ford, she says keeping up the pace on the processing line got to be too much for her.
"I had to be carried off the line because my body shut down and I was unable to move."
The report suggests that the state enact a poultry workers bill of rights. It also asks that OSHA regulate line speeds and the number of birds per minute each worker may be required to process.
According to this report, workers process about 140 birds per minute. A proposed rule change by the USDA would allow processing lines to increase to 175 birds per minute. The USDA says a pilot program indicates that the higher speeds can be carried out safely.
Thousands have already signed a Change.org petition to prevent the change from going into effect.