Workplaces : Case Studies
At the chicken farm with Craig [Other case studies]
Now in his twenties and working in the field of Information Technology, Craig Robinson*(not his real name) remembers the horrendous experience of working at a poultry farm for two weeks when he was fourteen. The sight, sounds, taste, touch and smell of that job remains with him to this day. Some of you may find his story a little upsetting.
If you want a pair of those trainers you had better find yourself a job, son" were the words which finally jolted me into the world of work.
It was two weeks before Christmas and a few weeks after my fourteenth birthday. The normally businesslike football fields were sparsely populated, this being due to the seasonal migration of the local youths to the local poultry farm. It was the easiest way to make some extra money.
"I can remember feeling that I was in real danger - from what I was doing and from making a mistake."
The following day, I joined the exodus of lads from the fields to the farm. Several miles of hedge-lined country lanes later, I arrived at my workplace to be greeted by an obnoxious, gut-churning smell.
A quick shake of hands, an offering of a lab coat, hat and optional beard net (not required by me) and I was led silently to the processing room, along with some other lads.
In the processing room, the bird is placed upon a conveyor belt. By the time it leaves the processing room it is ready for the supermarket freezers. Between the two states, there are many processes involving a wide variety of tools and machinery - all very sharp and complex.
I managed to escape the 'induction role' which, as a new recruit, I should have done first. This job involved ensuring that the birds are dead by severing their necks and allowing the blood to drain out (apologies to the squeamish). Instead, I ended up on the machine which removed the wing feathers. This machine basically consisted of two high-powered rollers that pulled the wing inwards, stripping the feathers off.
After about half a day of de-feathering a voice cried out "Hey, you! Take your gloves off unless you want to lose your hand!" This rebuke was followed by the first gory tale of an horrific injury suffered by a former employee in the 'processing room'.
These tales were often spread about by the other youths working at the farm. The gruesome stories turned out to be the only Health and Safety education we were to have. It soon became apparent that our behaviour in the workplace was guided by fear and rumour rather than direct measures and procedures.
On day three, I was handed a machete. It was about a foot long, and I was expected to open up a turkey's neck with it. The trouble was that I was expected to do this whilst it moved along the conveyor belt, upside down and above my head at grand prix speed. This was not manageable.
To make matters worse, the only health and safety provision, passed on by chance, was a chain mail glove that felt as heavy as a bucket of lead to this fourteen year old. I can remember feeling that I was in real danger - from what I was doing and from making a mistake.
The working day was long. We had to do 14 hour shifts! It was only the 'machoism' of youth that kept us going. To stick with the job and the awful conditions was a testament to our manhood. In reality, we were all mentally and physically drained by the end of every day. As youngsters, we had to make ethical and moral decisions quickly. This was imposed on us with authority - and with a total disregard for our welfare.
My attitude began to shift. Birds began to lose their ironic dinner-plate anonymity and took on a strange 'could be the family pet' persona. This feeling, of course, made it difficult, almost impossible to kill the poultry.
I also became more aware of hygiene and the risks associated with raw meat. There were endless reminders from my parents about this, too. I survived the two weeks and a 60lb turkey falling on me, with just cuts and bruises. I healed well physically - but not mentally. The two weeks work had left emotional scars.
As Christmas dinner was served, I opted for a nut roast alternative! It took me many years to start eating turkeys again and, to this day, I have never plucked up the courage to return to the Chicken farm.