In a nationally publicized case involving claims of crippling injuries to chicken-plant workers, Perdue Farms Inc. has agreed on a plan to monitor and prevent cases of repetitive motion disorder among employees of its four North Carolina processing facilities.
The agreement between Salisbury-based Perdue, the North Carolina job-safety agency and the employees was announced yesterday in Raleigh, N.C., as the company agreed to pay $39,690 in fines levied by the state in 1989 for workplace conditions linked to the debilitating disorder.
The agreement calls for recognition of RMD as a serious workplace ailment, a survey and analysis of the condition among rTC nearly 5,000 plant workers over the next four years, medical monitoring and input by employees in reaching solutions.
RMD is caused by making the same motion at rapid rates for long periods of time and produces pain and numbness in hands, wrists and arms. The disorder accounted for more than half of the ailments recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1989 and more than half of cases reported to the North Carolina job safety agency last year. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common type of disorder.
A year ago, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that 20 percent of workers questioned and examined at Perdue's Lewiston, N.C., plant had work-related RMD.
Perdue had maintained that the companywide incidence was less than 0.5 percent.
NIOSH recommended solutions that included redesigning work stations, increasing automation, job rotation and slowing down the production line that speeds through 91 chickens a minute.
Yesterday's agreement did not call for a reduction in line speed, a primary goal sought by the employees who intervened in the case through the Center for Women's Economic Alternatives.
"If the problem can be solved short of slowing down the line speed, we will be pleased," said Sarah Fields-Davis, the center director. "If it can't, we will have the evidence to demand that line speeds be slowed."
"This plan will enable us to be a leader in workplace health and safety, just as we are recognized as the industry leader in product quality," said Jimmy Chappell, Perdue's ergonomics research director.
The North Carolina cases gained national attention through congressional hearings two years ago and national radio and television coverage of the charges by workers mobilized by the women's center in Ahoskie, N.C.
The employees claimed that the crippling ailment was commonplace at Perdue plants. Workers who let it affect their productivity were fired, they charged, and could be easily replaced because of the ready pool of jobless people in the impoverished rural area.
Perdue, the nation's fourth-largest poultry processor, denied that it retaliated against sick employees and said that its RMD rate was no worse than that of other companies. Its rate is now half that of the poultry industry as a whole, the company said yesterday.
The North Carolina agency's settlement parallels a half-dozen cases resolved by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in manufacturing and food-processing industries in recent years.