A 2004 Toyota Camry is "home" to my favorite news source. (image courtesy of GTA Car Kits)

A 2004 Toyota Camry is “home” to my favorite news source.
(image courtesy of GTA Car Kits)

To further explain my ~catchy~ title, let me announce to cyberspace what my immediate friends and family are probably tired of hearing from me: I love NPR. The wide-range of topics, the digestible length of segments (think: why everyone is obsessed with TED talks), and the perfectly cultivated mix of both national and local coverage are just a few of my quick pitches for the incredible appeal, and therefore value, of public radio.

A semi-hectic lifestyle this summer has further deepened my appreciation for- and reliance on- NPR. It is always there, occupying the lower dial of my FM car radio, no matter where my travels take me. (And downloadable podcasts further enhance accessibility!) So naturally, I was nerdily excited to discover that occupational health in the meat & poultry industry would be an extended focus of programming on my local station this week. With Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms being the #1 and #2 largest employers in Accomack County (my current residence), enlisting both year-round and migrant workers, this was definitely a topic I was eager to hear more about (county data p. 38- click here).

As NPR informed me, this industry is not historically known for its workplace safety, consistently boasting the highest injury rate in the manufacturing sector (GAO report, p. 13) . On the other hand, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently found overall injury rates trending downward over the past decade, according to a comprehensive report released in May 2016; “injury and illness rates of total recordable cases in the meat and poultry industry declined from an estimated 9.8 cases per 100 full-time workers in calendar year 2004 to 5.7 cases in 2013,” (GAO report, p. 18).

However, with a title like Additional Data Needed to Address Continued Hazards in the Meat and Poultry Industry introducing this report, there is clearly room for improvement. And indeed, GAO has identified under-reporting of work-related injury and illness a major obstacle to progress in the industry. This under-reporting is likely a result of the dichotomous metric used to track data: full-days of work missed by an employee. For instance, an employee- particularly a seasonal, novice or otherwise disadvantaged one- may elect to ignore or “grin-and-bear” an occupational health concern, in order to maximize his or her job security.

Map of current and pending poultry industry facilities in Accomack County in 2015. This county comprises approximately one half of the geographic area of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, with Northampton County lying just south. (image courtesy of Accomack County Department of Planning)

Map of current and pending poultry industry facilities in Accomack County in 2015. This county comprises approximately one half of the geographic area of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, with Northampton County lying just south.
(image courtesy of Accomack County Department of Planning)

Several days ago in the clinic, I interpreted for a thirty-something-old man complaining of recurrent shoulder pain, attributed to his repetitive movement, gutting chickens at work (a position known as “presenter“, because the birds are presented for inspection immediately afterward). Due to the persistent quality of the shoulder pain, even while medicated, the physician recommended that this patient temporarily limit his work activity. As both an informed observer, and the GAO report, may have predicted, the patient explained to his doctor the unlikelihood of his supervisor accommodating such a request.

While this anecdote paints a bleak outlook for meat & poultry industry workers in a region so dependent on the fruits of their labor, recent push-back from the community against some of the nearly 200 newly proposed poultry operation sites along the Delmarva Peninsula demonstrates the potential of collective action to reform. Again using Accomack County as an example, the municipal board passed more stringent chicken housing regulations in February of this year, citing environmental health concerns. Perhaps the individual health of employees and the overall well-being of communities, who are all living in close proximity to a potentially hazardous industry could meet their common goals through collaboration? Could uniting these two related causes help lessen the political gap between environmental groups and poultry business enthusiasts, who frequently see each other as adversaries?

To be honest, questions like these are what I hope to spend my career contemplating, hopefully addressing and are not resolvable in 600 words here today. But for now and for symmetry’s sake, I will conclude with an  extension of my sincerest thanks to public media for always helping contextualize and question the world around me.

Ciao for now!