Home Restaurant Tyson Says Its Nurses Help Workers. Critics Charge They Stymie OSHA.

Tyson Says Its Nurses Help Workers. Critics Charge They Stymie OSHA.


Her scar runs from the meat of the palm to mid-hand, a map that tells the story of the body as a machine. Her hands often become numb when she is trying to grab her keys or open the door, causing frustration. For many years, she has worked 10-hour days, four days a week at a Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in the rural town of Green Forest, Arkansas. “Esto se llama carpal tunnel,” she said, tracing the dry riverbed of her scar with a finger.

She asked to be called María, not her real name. In Green Forest in July 2022, a billboard for Tyson advertised a “4-day workweek” and a “$2,000 signing bonus.” Tyson is the only large employer in the town of less than 3,000. As the largest meatpacking company in the U.S. and the second largest in the world, the company processes about 20 percent of all beef, pork, and chicken in the nation. It is headquartered in Arkansas, where 20 plants are the primary employer in small, rural towns like this one.

At her home, María stood facing a large portrait of her daughter in a fuchsia quinceañera dress. She thinks the pain began in 2017, but the Tyson on-site nurses involved did not provide her with paperwork to document her medical condition, she said, so she isn’t sure of the exact timeframe of events. Feet on worn carpet, the late afternoon light filtering through the curtains, María demonstrated her job at the time. She moved her hands precisely to cut an imaginary chicken wing, making an incision where the wing joins the shoulder and then cutting downwards. If the incision didn’t slice through the tendon completely, she could get hurt.

Although line speed varied, María used to cut 34 wings per minute—around 20,000 per day, and sharpening her knife after roughly every five wings. “That is what injured my hand,” she said. Her injury is not unusual. According to worker interviews and expert research, the prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome is high in poultry workers. One study found it to be 2.5 times higher than in other manual labor jobs, owing to worker tasks that require repetitive hand manipulation like these: cutting, eviscerating, washing, trimming, and deboning.

Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines advise companies like Tyson to rotate employees through such jobs to avoid musculoskeletal disorders. They also urge employers to provide early medical treatment to prevent permanent physical damage. Those things didn’t happen for María. Instead, when the pain got so bad that she couldn’t function, María asked her supervisor—the same one who could grant or deny her permission to use the bathroom—if she could visit the on-site nurse.

“They have you sit there for a bit and put a bag of ice on you for 15-20 minutes and then they tell you to go back to work.”

Tyson offers on-site occupational health nurses to address worker injuries like these. The model is emblematic of others in the meatpacking and poultry industries, designed to streamline efficiency, cut costs, and reduce liability, practices that are being emulated by animal feeding operations farther down the supply chain. Crucially, the on-site nursing model also reduces hospital trips and doctor visits that would otherwise trigger mandatory reporting to OSHA.

It thus obscures federal oversight of injuries and opportunities for workers to receive paid time off, workers’ compensation, and damages when they are hurt. Media investigations have shown that Tyson has a history of retooling workers’ compensation law to benefit the company’s bottom line. Critics say the on-site nursing model does the same.

Explaining the role of nurses inside the poultry plant, María said, “They have you sit there for a bit and put a bag of ice on you for 15-20 minutes and then they tell you to go back to work.”

OSHA does not require employers to report minor injuries that receive such first aid treatment. Workplaces are required to report severe injuries, including amputations, the loss of an eye, and others that require at least a one-night stay in a hospital, directly to OSHA within 24 hours. Injuries that require a simple doctor’s visit, however, are recorded in company logs that feed into reports to OSHA annually. The agency uses those reports to plan inspections of high-hazard workplaces and direct its enforcement. The system is designed to make efficient use of the limited number of OSHA inspectors. Companies can deflect OSHA’s attention, however, if the nurses they employ give injured workers first aid treatments instead of recommending medical care.

This is one of several reasons workers in the Tyson system are not allowed to consult with doctors about an injury unless the on-site nurse recommends it, according to a nurse and several plant workers employed by Tyson. If a worker wants to consult with an outside doctor, they are required to pay for their own care.

Anonymous Tyson worker in Green Forest, Arkansas. Tyson required her to visit three different doctors and to have all approve her carpal tunnel surgery before the company would pay for it. (Photo by Jacky Muniello for Civil Eats)

María said she was denied requests to see a doctor despite months of visits to the nurse at the plant in Green Forest. The company, she adds, delayed her access to medical care, proper treatment, and time to heal. Other workers, a former nurse, and federal investigations of the industry say her experience is typical.

Deborah Berkowitz, now a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, served as chief of staff and then senior policy advisor for OSHA from 2009-2015. She said the on-site first aid model at Tyson is common across the meatpacking and poultry industry.

“Workers in these meat plants have incredibly high rates of carpal tunnel syndrome, but the meat industry has figured out a way to hide these rates from the public,” she said. “OSHA regulations require that only work-related injuries that are serious enough to require medical treatment have to be recorded on official company injury and illness logs. What the industry perfected is a way to avoid having to record these injuries—like carpal tunnel syndrome—by essentially delaying or refusing to send workers or refer workers to see a doctor to get treatment when they are injured or ill from work.”

Tyson officials deny that the company refuses medical care to its employees. In a statement to Civil Eats, company spokesman Derek Burleson said, “The health and safety of our team members is our top priority,” and that the company is committed to providing a safe and healthy workplace. He provided a link detailing its goals.

Burleson added that Tyson requires employees to report their injuries internally, no matter how minor. “We do this because we believe in early intervention. We want workplace injuries and illnesses detected early so they can be immediately addressed,” he said.

Tyson follows a systematic approach for early reporting, intervention, evaluation and treatment of injuries and illnesses, Burleson said, a process that begins with evaluations by on-site nurses and progresses through a series of steps that includes referrals to doctors. He did not respond to María’s charge that on-site nurses did not provide her with paperwork documenting her medical condition or comment on the media investigation of Tyson’s approach to workers’ compensation.

A former nurse who was employed at several Tyson plants said that despite Tyson’s systematic protocol for worker injuries, in practice, the company’s plant managers pressured nurses to provide first aid to workers to avoid having to document them. The nurse, who Civil Eats is identifying as Nurse J, asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Nurse J provided copies of an employee manual that detail steps for addressing musculoskeletal injuries at Tyson through the process described by Burleson. That nurse said that each Tyson plant has a nurse manager who is responsible for making decisions about how an injured worker is treated, including when to approve a visit to a doctor. In practice, however, Nurse J said that in some Tyson plants, managers, who have no medical background, pressure nurses to halt the progression of medical care, often entering the room where the injured worker is being treated and providing their assessment of the injury and whether the worker should be approved to see a doctor.

Nurse J said that when a worker appears to be seriously injured, “the plant management team is like, ‘Well, then y’all need to like treat her and keep this from becoming OSHA recordable.’” If the nurse manager makes a decision that is not what the plant managers have recommended, the nurse manager is “given the fourth degree” and asked to try alternative treatments like offering more ice or a soft tissue massage that Tyson calls “art therapy.”

“If you were to take 20 nurse managers and ask them if they ever had pressure from their management, the answer would almost always be ‘yes,’” said Nurse J. Each year, Tyson sets goals for decreasing OSHA recordable injuries at a plant, usually aiming for about a 20 percent decrease, she added. If the plant doesn’t meet its goal, plant managers don’t receive raises or bonuses, she said.





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