It was only about an hour into Sophia’s morning shift at the Tyson chicken plant in Springdale, Arkansas, when the air turned lethal. As the shrink-wrapped chicken parts rolled off the line at a relentless pace, Sophia’s job was to load them into boxes, for which she earned $10 an hour. It was grinding, monotonous work, and the room where she worked was kept so cold that it felt like standing in a refrigerator for eight hours straight.
On this day in June 2011, Sophia felt a hot, itchy sensation as the skin on her face started to burn. Then she started to feel as if a balloon had blown up inside her lungs. In a room at the plant where antibacterial chemicals were stored, a terrible blunder had been made. A plant worker had mixed chlorine with an acid-based antimicrobial agent, creating chlorine gas, a poison so terrible that, after its use as a chemical weapon on the battlefields of the first world war, it was banned under the Geneva convention. Even small amounts can inflame the lungs, causing respiratory distress and death.
As greenish-yellow fumes began to spread inside the plant, Sophia heard a man yelling, “Vamonos, vamonos!” Panic set in among the workers, many of whom were struggling to breathe. The exit closest to Sophia’s workstation was the same door through which the gas was entering. She pulled the top of her sweater up from under her rubber apron, stretching it over her nose. It was a futile gesture. As she waited for her frantic colleagues to get out of the door, all she could do was pray: “God save me, God save me.” When, at last, she made it outside, she saw dozens of workers sprawled on the pavement.
Springdale was ill-prepared for the scale of the disaster. The city had only four ambulances, so the fire department was scrambled to take injured workers to hospital. Sophia and others needing medical attention were eventually put on a city bus. Sophia was still struggling to breathe. She began vomiting and coughing up blood. Many of the 173 workers who were taken to hospital recovered quickly, but others had symptoms that became more serious. Three workers developed chronic asthma; Sophia (she did not want to use her real name out of fear of retaliation from Tyson, where she still works) was among them.
It was one of the worst industrial accidents ever seen in Springdale, and the biggest to hit Tyson’s Berry Street plant, where 600 workers attend production lines, in shifts, 18 hours a day, processing 140 chickens per minute. On most days, the stench of chicken manure hangs about the downtown complex, and a steady stream of trucks unloads crates of squawking chickens for slaughter, before their carcasses are stripped and washed with chemicals.
The Berry Street plant is one of 123 operated across the US by Tyson Foods Inc. With sales of $42bn last year, Tyson is the largest processor of chicken in the world. Founded in Springdale in the 1930s, the business transformed a once quiet agricultural town of fewer than 3,000 people into a sprawling city of 81,000. As the largest private employer, Tyson dominates the local economy and has built a reputation as a beneficent corporate presence. It makes large donations to local nonprofits, including food banks and, through its chaplaincy programme – one is assigned to every Tyson processing plant – has many local priests and preachers on its payroll.
However, allegations of a widespread effort to suppress wages has tarnished this charitable image. According to a lawsuit filed in late 2019 against Tyson and 17 other poultry processors in the US, the wages paid to the hundreds of thousands of mostly immigrant workers were kept low through illegal means. Since 2009, the suit contends, executives from the 18 poultry companies held secret meetings in Florida, where they conspired to fix lower wages by sharing detailed information about hourly pay and benefits. Tyson declined to comment on the suit.
Chicken processing is one of the lowest-paid and most hazardous industries in the US, according to a 2017 report by the US Government Accountability Office, which revealed that workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome at a rate seven times the national average. In 2013, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) placed Tyson in the agency’s severe violator enforcement program, which targets “recalcitrant employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat, or failure-to-abate violation” after a worker’s hand was severed by a conveyer belt. (Tyson said the proposed penalty was later withdrawn, when the OSHA was satisfied remedial action had been taken.) In 2016, after a worker’s finger was severed at a Tyson processing plant in Center, Texas, OSHA inspectors found more than a dozen violations, including inadequate safety guards on machines, carbon dioxide levels above exposure limits, and no protective equipment for workers handling chemicals. In March, a contractor cleaning machinery in a Tyson chicken plant in Alabama was decapitated in an accident.
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