Cruelest Cuts

The perils of processing

About 100 U.S. poultry workers have died on the job during the past decade, and more than 300,000 have been injured. The industry's death and injury rates are higher than those for manufacturing as a whole. For many workers -- including those who suffer amputations, chemical burns and debilitating hand or wrist ailments -- on-the-job injuries have left a lasting mark. Poultry plants are typically divided into two functions. At one end, birds are slaughtered, scalded and plucked. At the other end, tightly clustered workers cut and package meat.

1. Receiving and killing

Forklift drivers unload cages of live chickens or turkeys. Workers hang the birds upside down on an overhead conveyor. Machines kill, scald and de-feather the birds. HAZARDS: Forklift accidents account for many serious injuries. Many employees develop hand, arm, shoulder or back injuries from lifting thousands of live birds each day. Frequent contact with chicken feces and dust leaves some workers suffering from respiratory problems.

2. Evisceration

Workers or machines remove internal organs, which are placed in bins and graded by inspectors. Some organs, such as gizzards and livers, may be cleaned and packaged. The carcass is cleaned and vacuumed. The bird is packaged whole after evisceration or placed on cones for cutting and de-boning.

HAZARDS: Employees may develop repetitive motion problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis.

3. Cutting

Workers use scissors, knives and saws to cut wing tips, wings and legs from birds. HAZARDS: Cuts, nerve damage and repetitive-motion injuries such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome are common. Cuts not treated promptly often become infected from the bacteria on raw chicken.

4. De-boning

Workers use their knives and hands to separate the meat from the skin and bones. Some employees make more than 20,000 cuts each day.

5. Packaging

Employees package meat and box it for shipping.

HAZARDS: Repeated reaching and lifting may leave workers with injuries to their backs, shoulders, arms and hands.

SOURCE: Occupational Safety and Health Administration