MONTGOMERY, AL (RNN) - From Chick-fil-A to chicken wings, the average American eats more than 50 pounds of chicken each year.
But according to a new report, the workers who process chicken for the largest poultry companies in the country are exposed to harmful conditions. And if new USDA rules go into effect, they will get worse and could put the health of consumers at risk.
The report, "Unsafe at Any Speed," was conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. It is based on interviews with more than 300 current and former poultry workers.
One of the interviewees described the average chicken processing plant as a "house of pain," where workers are under pressure to work at breakneck speeds, making them susceptible to an array of injuries and exposing them to harmful chemicals.
Part of the problem is the nature of the job. Work at a chicken processing plant involves a great deal of repetitive motion in cold temperatures, making workers highly vulnerable to carpal tunnel syndrome and gnarled fingers. And because there are no set ergonomic standards in these workplaces, poultry processors do little to prevent the dangerous conditions, the report says.
"Poultry workers are two and a half times more likely to have carpal tunnel than non-poultry workers," Dr. Susan Quandt, who has studied the health issues of poultry workers in North Carolina.
Quandt added that there are higher than normal reports of musculo-skeletal injuries, shoulder injuries, and lower back injuries among poultry workers caused by the repetitive work, awkward postures, and lack of ergonomic standards.
There have also been cases of poultry workers developing pachydermodactyly, a rare condition also known as "elephant fingers," that causes chronically swollen knuckles and burning joint pains. Quandt believes the condition is caused by repeated minor trauma to the fingers, which is necessary for poultry hangers, the workers responsible for hanging chicken carcasses on conveyor belt hooks.
When workers try to seek medical treatment, they are threatened with termination and, for the many undocumented workers in the poultry industry, deportation, the report claims.
"[Workers] are discouraged from reporting work-related injuries and forced to endure constant pain," said Tom Fritzsche, author of the report. "They are also discouraged from slowing down the processing line - even when they're hurt."
Respiratory illnesses among poultry workers have also been reported. Natashia Ford worked at a Wayne Farms chicken processing plant in Northern Alabama for six years. During that time, she developed histoplasmosis, a lung disease similar to tuberculosis that's caused by breathing airborne spores at the plant, the SPLC report said.
The company initially refused to pay Ford's medical bills. But after she sued, they agreed to pay a portion of her medical expenses.
Ford also said that because the plant did not provide adequate protective gear, "chicken juices" - the liquid and chemical runoff from chicken carcasses - would seep into her eyes, ears and mouth. That was a common complain among poultry workers in the report.
The SPLC report warns that poultry processing conditions will worsen if the USDA implements new rules that would allow poultry producers to increase their chicken processing line speeds from the current maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175 per minute.
In addition, the new rules will decrease the number of health inspectors from four per line to only one.
"The lines are so fast, one-third of a second per bird," said Phyllis McKelvey, a USDA inspector who retired in 2010, according to the report. "You tell me you can thoroughly inspect that bird for disease and contaminants in one-third of a second?"
The SPLC report and food advocates contend that rule change will increase the possibility that disease-ridden chickens will end up on Americans' plates. Line speeds are already too fast to adequately inspect the chickens, they say, and increasing the speed while decreasing inspectors is a recipe for disaster.
The USDA contends that their new methods will involve washing chicken carcasses in a chemical solution, making elimination of food-borne illnesses easier and more accurate.
It will also mean fewer inspectors needed, saving the federal government $90 million over three years. But the big winner will be the poultry industry, which will save $256 million annually in production costs.
Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, has criticized the supposed safety of the new process. According to documents provided by the USDA, the group found several plants where the new methods are being used missed birds with defects, including bruises, tumors and fecal matter. Among the plants were several processors for Pilgrim's Pride, which provides chicken for several fast food giants, including KFC, Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A.
Among its many recommendations to improve standards, the SPLC report urges the USDA to decrease line speeds and for OSHA to reinstate a federal ergonomic standard with a slower work pace to prevent carpal tunnel and other musculo-skeletal injuries.
The report also urges the state of Alabama - the third-largest poultry producing state in the country and where the poultry industry makes up 10 percent of the state economy - to enact a Meatpacking Workers Bill of Rights, similar to what Nebraska has. The goal is to improve employees' working standards and rights to workers' compensation.
The job safety and health standards of Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas - the three leading poultry producing states - are not among the 27 states approved by OSHA as being at least as effective as federal standards.
The National Chicken Council, a trade group for poultry processors, did not comment on the claims made by employees in the SPLC report. However, the group said there is no evidence to prove increasing line speeds will result in more injuries, and the industry will continue to improve worker safety.
"While the past 25 years has seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers and rates of injury and illnesses occurring in the industry, [we] will continue to seek new and innovative ways to protect our workforce," said Tom Super, vice president of communications for the NCC.