Cruelest Cuts

A worker's grueling day

Celia Lopez felt lucky when she was hired at the House of Raeford Farms turkey plant in Raeford. But after six years, the 44-year-old mother of three said she feared the "hands that take care of my family" are ruined. Last February, Fayetteville Dr. Stanley Gilbert performed carpal tunnel surgery on her left hand. In June, he performed surgery on her right hand. At the Observer's request, Lopez recounted a typical day:

6:45 a.m. -- Lopez walks through the gate of the sprawling plant. She's struck by the pungent smell of ammonia.

She punches her timecard and puts on her gear -- rubber boots, apron, hairnet and two pairs of gloves. She rushes to position. Workers must be at their posts before the production line starts. No excuses.

7 a.m. -- The line starts. Lopez begins by grabbing and placing turkey breasts on plates to be weighed. Each plate must weigh between 6 and 6 1/2 pounds. She grabs meat with her right hand and uses her left to hold the plate, then pushes the turkey along the line. She'll repeat this process hundreds of times an hour.

9:30 a.m. -- If Lopez needs a bathroom break, she must wait until a supervisor finds someone to replace her on the line. This can take minutes or hours - if approved at all. "Bathroom breaks are a privilege, not a necessity," she said her bosses told her. If granted, she has 10 minutes to remove her gear, use the facilities and return.

11 a.m. -- Lunch.

11:30 a.m. -- Back on the line. She has processed hundreds of pounds of meat. The line is moving fast; workers struggle to keep pace, she says. Conversation is minimal.

2 p.m. -- Break. She looks for a wall to press her back against and stretch her muscles.

2:30 p.m. -- The next two hours are the hardest -- the piles of meat seem endless, she says. Her back cramps, pain spreading to her shoulders, arms and hands. She is exhausted from standing. Sometimes she feels dizzy.

4 p.m. -- She punches out. She changes out of her work clothes, washes her face and leaves.

4:30 p.m. -- She arrives home and takes a shower. "The meat smell gets stuck in your skin," she says.

About 7 p.m. -- She helps cook dinner for her family. Grasping a spoon is hard, she says. She uses two hands to carry a dinner plate. Basic tasks take longer because of the pain. "It's like ants crawling through my hands, up my arms," she says.

9 p.m. -- She takes two ibuprofen pills before rubbing her hands with alcohol and lotion -- a nightly routine.

9:30 p.m. -- She goes to bed.

Midnight -- 2 a.m. -- Lopez frequently wakes up, hands cramping. She squeezes her fists and rubs her fingers to get blood flowing. She may wake up four times a night; each time the pain is worse. She swallows more ibuprofen.

5 a.m. -- Her alarm sounds. The line starts in two hours. "Sometimes I cry. I just pray to God that he will show me the way."