<$BlogRSDUrl$> 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.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

My Personal Experiences and Witnessing of Extreme Dangers at Tyson 

After reading the Human Rights Watch report, I was so glad that someone was finally willing to investigate this problem and do something about it that I wrote them. I used excerpts from some of my posts here. Since I know that you all don't have time to wade through them all, I thought that I would just simply share with you most of what I wrote to them. Remember that this is just one small plant and what one worker saw.

The most relevant posts were made back in August, September, October, and November of 2003.

Many of the problems were due to a lack of maintenance, but most were due to the drive for profit and an attitude of just not caring. To give you an idea of a few of the things posted there, I have copied and pasted a little of it:

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.
(posted here)

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, overalls, 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.
(posted here)

One-leggers can pose a very real danger to the person in the killing room if they are left on the line. The killer's knife is between 7" to 8" long and is razor sharp. I, and others, have received many cuts to our hands and wrists from the killing knives because of the fight that the one-leggers put up to save
themselves. In order to cut bird's necks, the killer has to reach out and grab the chicken by the head, put his thumb on the inside of its beak, and with his pointer finger behind its neck, he rotates his hand to pull the neck tight, all while the chicken is flopping around. With the one leg loose, a one legger can kick
the knife and usually drive the blade right into the killer's wrist.
(posted here)

People got injured down there all the time. There was rarely a week that went by that somebody didn't get hauled off to the hospital for an accident of some sort. There was a steady stream of people through the nurse's station with carpal tunnel, tendinitis, repetitive motion disorder, cuts, burns, abrasions, bruises, etc. Certain conditions common to back dock were getting "galded" (burned from the ammonia on the chickens), "blood rash" or "chicken rash" (looks like poison ivy and can become infected).
(posted here)

Their were several people who were hurt by machinery that someone failed to replace a safety guard on, or that need one, but didn't have one. One woman got her hand caught in the neck-breaking machine and lost 2 1/2 of her fingers. It was always getting clogged up and didn't clean itself out properly, so you had to do it by hand.

There was a guy that got his hand in a skinner in debone one time. It rips the skin off of chicken thighs and drumsticks to be deboned. It mangled his hand
bad enough that he couldn't use it anymore. Don't know where the skin went. It just disappeared into the chicken that went in to become nuggets. I guess someone ate it long ago.

I got my smock tangled up in the drive chain of our hanging belt one time. Luckily for me, I carried a pretty sharp pocketknife. I whipped it out and cut my smock loose before it pulled me into the gears. I still got into trouble for missing shackles and they charged me $15 for the smock I cut up.
(posted here)

(More to come. Gotta make my 30-minute deadline. Keep reading for more)
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