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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.
Monday, September 29, 2003
Tyson are actually competent workers, with
the exception of one or two (like most places),
and try to do their jobs the best they can.
But, there are not very many of them and the
ones that there are find themselves hamstrung
by company policy in many cases. This does
not allow for much preventative maintenance,
especially if it costs something.
The company and their supervisor will only
authorize something to be fixed after it breaks,
and often only if it affects the line - as in
stopping it altogether or simply slowing it
down. Often this leaves out things like
light switches, emergency stop switches on
machinery, the lights themselves in some
cases, and climate control devices - a/c and
All these create a dangerous environment
for both the workers and the chickens. Many
times this also makes the workers' jobs harder.
* Shackles will be left bent for days at a time.
* Light switches can shock you when you flick
the switch while you are standing in water
* Corrosion built up around the motor of a
fan coupled with bare wires in the back of it,
causing a fire in the motor.
* The hanging belt was constantly out of
* The stunner was always acting up, especially
because of the tendency for the ground wire
to become corroded and break, leaving the
* Hydraulic hoses broke 2-3 times per month
because of them not being replaced on time.
* They consistently left dangerous objects
laying around after finishing a project before
our shift came in (things like pieces of wire
left on the belt, pipe fittings, pipe, etc.)
Bent shackles are especially dangerous to
chickens and workers. With the bright lights
off and the black lights on, add to that the dust
level and constantly having something in your
eye(s), and visibility is not very good. When a
bent shackle comes around it can either entangle
a hanger or a chicken is hung in it. Since the
shackle is out of line with the rest of the shackles
it will leave that one chicken sticking out and get it
hung up on the chain guides ripping the bird in half.
A hanger may either hit himself on it or become
entangled in it. Either way it's not a pretty sight
and can be avoided. Some times I have reported
the same bent shackles 7 or 8 times before some-
thing was ever done about it.
Once when I turned on the black lights in the
hanging cage, sparks flew from the light
fixture and all the lights went out, just when
we were starting to hang the chickens. The
bad thing is that we had to work anyway. It
was 2 1/2 hrs. before they fixed the lights.
As difficult as that job is anyway, try doing it
in the dark. It was worse for the poor chickens
than it was for us because they got hung every
way but the right way in many cases. I think
the scalder probably killed as many during that
2 1/2 hrs. as the killer did.
The belt that we hung off of was fed its supply
of chickens from a machine called a dump. It
literally dumped cages of birds onto a pair of
conveyor belts, which were activated when you
activated the hanging belt. These 2 belts on the
dump had to be synchronized with each other
and turn only half as fast as the hanging belt.
Otherwise the hanging belt would become over-
loaded and birds would smother to death.
The adjustment ideally should have been made
by the lead hanger, who knew exactly what he
needed, but Richard had maintenance take over
adjustment of the whole apparatus because he
felt that we weren't dumping enough birds on
the line at one time and that that was why empty
shackles were going out. Naturally, maintenance
guys didn't know how to adjust the belt properly,
because they weren't hangers, so they just maxed
all 3 belts out. This ended up smothering hundreds
of birds a night and made it hard on the hangers
to pick them up because the birds were wilder,
Packed so tightly on the belt, they were afraid of
smothering and were trying to get off. When I
left down there, there was still a fight going on
over who should adjust the belts.
The stunner is a long vat filled with a salt water
solution that is electrified. When the chickens
pass through it, in theory, it shocks them into
insensibility and immobilizes them. I say "in
theory" because the whole time I worked down
there I could probably count on my fingers the
number of times it worked up to expectations.
You can blame it on a lot of reasons, but mostly
I believe, it was a lack of preventive maintenance
coupled with mismanagement, namely Richard's.
The killer was the one who should have been
allowed to set the stunner because he knew
whether it was doing its job or not. Richard
decided that he or maintenance knew more about
adjusting it then the man on the floor. You can
add to that the fact that maintenance wasn't even
allowed to use a 6 ft. piece of new electrical wire
without their supervisor's approval, who took his
orders from Richard. Even though anyone could
look and plainly see that the ground wire to the
stunner was broken, they would have to get an
approved work order before they could replace it.
This would take a minimum of 25-30 minutes.
All the while, there were chickens whistling through
there at 182+ per minute. Without a ground wire,
the stunner was worse than useless. Without the
chickens being so much as "tickled" (the term used
do describe the effect) they would be nearly jumping
from the shackles without very many being killed
by the killing machine.
Most of the time it would present such a dangerous
situation for the killer that he would be forced to
just back away from the line because, while the
stunner without a ground wire doesn't shock the
chickens very hard, it will shock the hell out of
anything or anyone near the outside of it. I was
twice shocked in this way, once seriously.
Now, if the chickens are missing the machine and
the killer cannot get close enough to slit their
throats to kill them, they go through the scalder
alive and conscious.
One of my biggest problems with the maintenance
situation down there was their lack of any pretense
of any preventive maintenance of the hydraulic
system. I might point out that our hydraulic
system's operating pressure was from 1200-1700 psi.
The normal operating temp. for the hydraulic fluid
was well above boiling temperature for water. And,
I would like to point out that the lead hanger (which
was usually me) worked within 6 in. of a nest of
hydraulic hoses. The same hydraulic hoses ran
underneath the feet of the dump operator. As far
as I can remember, maintenance never once changed
out a hydraulic line before it burst. You could clearly
see the deterioration day after day.
I once warned my supervisor for 2 weeks prior to a
hose rupturing. I pointed it out to him night after
night. Anyone could see it clearly separating from
its fitting and cracking down its entire length. When
it finally did rupture it put a 2 in. wide blister from
my hip to my knee. The stream cut clean through
my smock, apron, coveralls, and my jeans. Had I
not been dressed as warmly as I was I would have
gotten a nasty cut as well as a burn. This obviously
could have been avoided. And to top it all off, we
had to wring the necks of over 300 chickens because
they were soaked in hydraulic fluid so the USDA
would not let us run them.
Maintenance worked the shift just prior to ours from
around 2 p.m. until 9 p.m., with just a skeleton crew
on during the shift for emergency repairs. The crew
that worked the afternoon before our shift would
leave debris around on the floor and the belt. The
objects on the floor are particularly dangerous to the
hangers because we worked under such low visibility
conditions and could not see things laying on the floor.
It wasn't uncommon to have someone fall and hurt
themselves because of tripping over this stuff. Our
dump operator was an older guy, around 50 or so.
He once tripped on a piece of pipe and fell between 2
cages on the dump and ended up breaking his leg.
It was written up as an on-the-job accident, but it
could have easily been avoided.
Leaving debris on the belt was dangerous to both
hangers and chickens, especially if it was wire or cable.
I once knew of a guy getting his wrist dislocated
because a piece of wire got tangled up in a shackle
and around his hand at the same time. And it wasn't
uncommon to see where a chicken had gotten its head
stuck in a piece of PVC pipe, a pipe fitting, or some
other foreign object left on the belt, and die from it.
The point of all of this is that there are more problems
than just cruelty to chickens, bad working conditions,
and environmental damage. There is also the problem
of mismanagement, many times caused by someone
in authority on a power trip, wanting to control every-
thing without the practical experience and knowledge
necessary to make some decisions. Throw into the
mix the dangling of bonuses for production and
keeping expenses down, and you have a recipe that
just begs for mismanagement, violations, and
cover-ups. There is no incentive to conduct business
in a responsible manner, just a profitable one.
I guess that leaves it to society to create these
incentives ourselves. Vote with your wallet. Buy
only from companies whose practices and policies
you agree with. There is a lot of competition for
your money out there. With a minimal amount of
research you can make a sound decision on who
to do business with.
Together, we can make a difference.