<$BlogRSDUrl$> The Cyberactivist

Behind the scenes of the fight for the protection of animals and workers and the preservation of the environment - my experiences as a Tyson slaughterhouse hanger/killer turned activist. Exposing the evils of factory farming, by Virgil Butler. If you have arrived here looking for the Tyson stories, view the early archives. Some of them are now featured on the sidebar for easy searching.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

The human victims of factory farming 

Most people don't know that all this
business did not start with my desire
to help chickens, but to help myself
and my co-workers. We were being
forced to endure horrible, even illegal,
working conditions at the slaughterhouse.

This started out with me trying to get
help for the workers from OSHA, due
to the huge number of safety violations
that would somehow miraculously be
dealt with before an OSHA inspection
took place. We always had about a
week's notice of such inspections, even
though such inspections are supposed
to be a surprise.

Light switches that would shock an
employee, left unrepaired for weeks or
months, would suddenly be fixed just
before OSHA showed up. I was shocked
three times by one of these.

The emergency stop button for the
killing machine was too far away from
the machine to be reached by the person
killing beside it. This machine can grab
you and hold you in it while it cuts you.
If it were to catch you while you were
alone in the room, which is most of the
time, you could not get away. I complained
about this issue for three years, with
nothing being done. It was still this way
my last night I worked there. Tyson got
away with this by stating to OSHA that
there was always someone in the room
with the killer, which is a lie. Of course,
when OSHA inspected, there was.

The emergency stop button on the hanging
line only worked about half the time. If
someone were to be caught in the hanging
line, and the emergency stop button failed,
they would be dragged through the stunner
and the killing machine. It would work when
OSHA came by, but frequently would not
work for a night or two.

We had quite a bit of electrical equipment
that should have been waterproofed, but
wasn't because of high deterioration of
rubber water seals due to constant exposure
to high ammonia levels. The biggest problem
with this was the fact that the cleanup crew
used high-pressure (122 psi) hoses to clean
all machinery, spraying electrical equipment
with the power still on. This led to short
circuits and burned wires.

Most of the time, machinery was improperly
grounded, especially the stunner. Even
though I am not an electrician myself, my
brother is. He works afternoon and nights
as their in-house electrician. He told me
that the maintenance supervisor told him
not to replace anything without the maintenance
supervisor's (Dwight Billings) approval unless
it completely stopped production. Billings
told me to quit complaining, that as long as
the chickens were running, that was all that
concerned him. I was shocked by the stunner
twice, once seriously enough to be sent home.
They refused to take me to the doctor, despite
my plea for them to do so. Instead, they sent
me to drive 20 miles home alone in a rainstorm
after I had been knocked unconscious by an
electrical shock. This happened, I believe, in '98.

OSHA has regulations on the amount of dust
allowed to be in the air where we worked. If
the dust level exceeds their safety level, you
are to wear goggles and breathing masks.
The plant did have these items in abundance
in the supply closet for employees to use.
However, we were not allowed time to change
the masks during production or time to clean
our goggles when they got dirty. Therefore,
using them was more unsafe than not doing so.
The dust masks would get so full of dust we
could not breathe, so we would have to pull
them off. The goggles would be so coated
with dust that we could not see, so off they
went. If you were caught stepping off the
line to clean your goggles or change your
dust mask, you could be terminated.

Employees are issued ear plugs, however,
if they fall out while you are working on the
line, you cannot replace them. Your hands
are covered with feces and blood, and other
nasty things that you do not dare allow in
your ears. You cannot take the time to go
wash your hands and put a new set in.

The climate control systems were never a
high priority. It was dangerously hot in the
summer (I have seen it 125F in the hanging
cage) and dangerously cold in the winter
(cold enough your boots would freeze to the
floor while you were working and chickens
would freeze to the belt, thereby pulling the
birds apart when you picked them up). The
ice on the runway where the trucks are
unloaded would be bad enough to cause the
forklift to slide and crash into the side of the
trailer and drop cages as well as turn in
circles due to lack of traction.

On two different occasions we had anhydrous
ammonia leaks. This chemical is used in the
chillers that cool the birds down after leaving
the evisceration line. There are two huge tanks
on top of the plant. Every evening a big tanker
truck filled them up. The first leak was
considered minor, and they evacuated the plant
for the rest of the night. The second caused
the evacuation of the entire town of Grannis,
and was considered a major one. They had
around 30-40 of us helping to clean up this
spill without any sort of chemical protective
gear whatsoever. We were "volunteered" by
the plant manager for this duty. There was
one supervisor watching from all the way
across the parking lot (around 400-500 yards)
wearing a respirator. Needless to say, every
one of us got quite sick. We suffered
nosebleeds and blisters in our sinuses, throats,
and mouths. We also had raw spots on our
hands and arms. We went to the doctor(s)
after this for treatment, but this was done at
our own expense, without Tyson's help and
without workman's compensation paying for
any of it. I, along with quite a few others,
missed several days of work over this.

One summer an OSHA inspector came to the
plant as part of an investigation into safety
violation allegations. Superintendent Bell
(who quit a few weeks after this incident)
and Sheila Bagley (who was transferred
around the same time and given a promotion
two positions above the one she held at this
time) called me outside on the sidewalk in
front of the plant where no one but the three
of us could hear the conversation. At the time
I was on parole and they knew I had a drug
problem. They told me, "if you want to
remain free and keep your job, you will go down
and talk to the OSHA man and make Tyson
look good."

I had to go down there and lie to this man.
At this time, I had a wife and baby at home
that depended on me, not to mention the
fact that I was looking at a prison sentence
if I got fired. This conversation with the
OSHA man lasted about an hour. He asked
about the conditions mentioned above, in
particular about Tyson's policy allowing us
to take breaks for maintenance of safety
equipment and rest periods so that we were
not overworked. I was forced to lie to this
man and tell him everything was fine, which
it clearly was not.

Everyone else that was questioned by this
man (that I was aware of) was Hispanic and
their immigration status was suspect. Two
of them I knew for sure were illegals, Roberto
Garcia and Hernando Vasquez.

I was in the process of trying to organize
my fellow co-workers to make a report to
OSHA and come clean about this situation
(after I got off parole and got straightened
out on the drug problem) when I got fired.
I had already gotten the forms to make
the report to OSHA and was trying to
gather signatures to back up these allegations.
Tyson heard about this and started to
intimidate the other workers into keeping
quiet about and fired me as the ring-
leader to set an example to the rest.
It worked to silence them.

Without anyone to back up my story,
I could do no more than to have OSHA
call Tyson and ask them about this
situation, which they would (of course)
have denied. No one was interested
in helping the employees, so I decided
to see if anyone cared about helping
the chickens, who also suffered from
the same conditions imposed on the
workers.

It turned out that a lot of people cared.
I had never even heard of PETA before
this. My wife told me about them, so
we wrote them about this situation
and added all the other examples of
unnecessary cruelty I had seen and
been a part of for so long. However,
being an animal rights group, under-
standably their focus was solely on
the chickens, and, while they were
concerned about the conditions the
workers were forced to endure, this
was not their area of expertise. They
were of the opinion that if we could
improve the conditions for the chickens
we would improve the conditions for
the workers.

If the workers were not treated so
inhumanely, they would be less likely
to treat the chickens that way. It
goes along with the saying, "Sh*t
rolls downhill." Workers are frustrated
by bad conditions and no recourse, so
they take it out on the chickens. While
I do not condone such behavior, I can
understand why it happens. There is
a huge amount of frustration and rage
as well as a overwhelming feeling of
injustice at the uncaring attitude of
management to their plight.

However, the more I worked with the
various animal rights groups and found
out that this problem was not an isolated
incident, but the norm for millions of
chickens as well as many workers, I
became more and more conscious of
the huge scope of the inherent cruelty
of the whole factory farming industry.

I became more aware of the fact that
these animals destined for America's
dinner plates were innocent victims, with
no voice and even less recourse than
the workers. While I understood the
workers' concerns for their jobs and
the survival of their families, they were
still making a choice.

These animals make no such choice.
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