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The Injured Workers Behind Your Chicken Habit


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Debbie BerkowitzDebbie Berkowitz has been at the center of the vexed effort to ensure a safe workplace for poultry workers since her time as a union workplace-safety advocate in the early 1980s. In the Obama era, she served as a top official in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and has since emerged as a leading advocate and researcher on the topic. In this episode of Unconfined, she lays out in stark detail all the ways the federal regulatory system has failed to live up to its obligation to ensure the safety of the people who produce America's favorite meat. 




Your Chicken Wings, with a Side of Carpal Tunnel  


By Tom Philpott                                                                                                                                                             Subscribe to Host Notes

Back in the early 1980s, as a workplace-safety educator for food-system workers at the AFL-CIO, Debbie Berkowitz got a call from a local union in Virginia about a painful condition bedeviling employees at a poultry slaughterhouse. At the time, awareness of carpal-tunnel syndrome (CTS)—a repetitive-motion injury that occurs when a nerve in the wrist area is regularly pinched—was only just emerging. "I actually had never heard of it," Berkowitz recounts on the latest episode of Unconfined podcast.  

Intrigued, Berkowitz soon visited the plant, and encountered "all these women [who] were working on the production lines— deboning and eviscerating—and they had this illness where they couldn't go back to work." Similar reports from poultry slaughterhouses in other regions soon inspired the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to look into the problem. The backdrop: for about a decade, the kill lines at slaughterhouses had been steadily speeding up, forcing workers to toil ever faster. NIOSH commissioned a 1982 study of the bodily mechanics of workers on the poultry kill line. Its conclusions were simple and clear: Making the same motion over and over again at breakneck speed inevitably leads to repetitive-stress injuries; and to lower the risk, the industry should employ more workers to the line so that each one made fewer repetitive cuts; and roll out specially designed knives to allow cutters to keep their wrists in a neutral position. 

In my conversation with Berkowitz, she teases out in vivid detail how, in the more than 40 years since, the industry has systematically ignored this advice, and used political influence to overwhelm the efforts of federal worker-safety regulators. In the meantime, kill lines have continued to speed up, CTS and other repetitive stress conditions still proliferate among workers; and they suffer amputations and deaths at multiple times the overall average for U.S. industries. Given such a grim pre-existing condition, it's no wonder that during the first year of the Covid pandemic, meatpacking companies "prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily," as a scathing 2021 report from the US House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found.  

If you want to understand how and why the U.S. regulatory system fails in its statutory duty to ensure safe conditions for the people who churn out America's favorite meat, Berkowitz is the go-to source. After more than a decade as a safety expert for unions, she worked for six years in top positions at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama. During the Trump years, she directed the worker-safety program at the National Employment Law Project, where she spent many hours educating journalists like me about the perils of meatpacking work during a viral pandemic. (I'm particularly proud of this piece that grew out of a conversation with her). She is now a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University—and as you'll hear in our podcast episode, she remains a fountain of authoritative information and analysis on the topic. Every time I speak to her, I learn new and startling things—and this conversation was no exception. 

Additional links: 

  • Berkowitz mentions her 2021 paper in the American Medical Association's Journal of Ethics about the performance of on-site workplace medical clinics in meatpacking plants. It's here.  

  • During her discussion about the unreliability of the industry's injury data, I mentioned this rosy chart on the website of the poultry industry's main trade group.  

  • In case you missed it, my interview with Magaly Licolli on a previous Unconfined episode makes for a bracing chaser to this one. Licolli recounts how poultry workers are organizing to exert more control over their workplaces in the absence of regulatory protections. 

In Host Notes, the voices behind Unconfined podcast deliver additional context to supplement our interviews. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future or the Johns Hopkins University.