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More hurting ahead for poultry workers

First comes the pain. It’s not unexpected if you work on the line at a poultry processing plant. When you’re cutting and slicing and digging meat from dozens of chickens a minute – more than 10,000 in an eight-hour shift – your hands and wrists are going to ache.

For many workers, however, the pain turns into burning or tingling or, most alarming, no pain at all. By the time numbness sets in, tendons have passed the point of inflammation. Nerves have become deadened. Your hands don’t work anymore.

It’s an epidemic that afflicts countless numbers of workers, many of them too afraid to speak up at poultry plants in North Carolina and across the country. Now, the U.S. Agriculture Department is proposing to make their pain worse.

The USDA is finalizing plans to overhaul rules at poultry plants with changes that include reducing the numbers of government inspectors by 40 percent and increasing processing line speeds by 25 percent. Currently, the birds can come down the line at a rate no faster than 140 per minute. The USDA is proposing to increase the maximum to 175 per minute.

On Thursday, poultry workers from across the country met with lawmakers and administration officials on Capitol Hill to explain how the current combination of line speeds and repetitive motions already do damage to their hands and wrists. It’s rare that these workers, most of whom are Latino and black, have any voice. At work, they are often reluctant to complain for fear of being fired or turned over to immigration authorities.

Poultry companies have no such qualms about speaking up. The $60 billion industry, which is critical to state economies including North Carolina’s, has spent more than $500,000 annually through the National Chicken Council to lobby Congress on the rules. The Washington Post reported this week that in a paper circulated on Capitol Hill, the chicken lobbyist claimed that poultry plant injuries had steadily declined in the past three decades. But government and academic studies have shown rates of carpal tunnel syndrome for poultry plant workers at 40 percent.

In a 2008 Charlotte Observer investigation, reporters spoke to more than 130 poultry workers, three-fourths of whom complained of hand and wrist injuries. Several suffered from later stages of carpal tunnel syndrome and were unable to straighten fingers or pick up objects like spoons. Some were afraid to use their trembling, weakened hands to pick up their young children.

Supporters of the USDA proposals say that data from pilot plants show increased speeds did not result in more worker injuries. But the Government Accountability Office has questioned the validity of pilot program data, and there’s little reason to believe workers at pilot plants are any less reluctant to report injuries and risk retribution.

N.C. Sen. Kay Hagan, who is running for reelection in 2014, supports the USDA rule changes because they would free inspectors to concentrate on food safety, her office told the editorial board. But the changes also show disregard for the North Carolina workers who are among the most vulnerable. They need more advocacy and more safety – not more chickens, with the pain they surely would bring.

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