Thursday, October 30, 2003

Ergonomics: From Washington to Belzoni, Mississippi -- The Full Story

This is an excerpt from the complete chapter on the struggle for an ergonomics standard the the role of Eugene Scalia in killing it from BUSHWACKED by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose.
On the same March morning in 2000 when lawyer/lobbyist Eugene Scalia raced to the front of the Department of Labor hearing room to take the lead in the industry fight against ergonomic protection for workers, Durst got up and took her three-year-old son to the neighbor who takes care of him while she works. She then drove twenty miles to the Freshwater Farms catfish processing plant, just east of the Yazoo River in Belzoni. She put on an apron, a hair net, special latex gloves, and a pair of rubber boots. She walked into the refrigerated plant and took her station on the thin black rubber mat next to the conveyor belt. At the start of the conveyor belt, live catfish spilled out of holding tanks and began to move in Durst’s direction.

By the time the judge made his opening remarks and Scalia finished his first twenty minutes of testimony, Sherry Durst had skinned one thousand catfish. For eight to ten hours a day, Durst grabs a catfish off the conveyor belt, presses one of its sides against a set of blades mounted on a high-speed rotor, then flips the fish and repeats the process. Then she grabs another, and another, and another. If the line was running fast on March 13, 2000, Durst would have skinned twelve hundred fish before Scalia completed his brief morning testimony.

By the time Judge Vittone adjourned the ergonomics hearing at noon and the lawyers and lobbyists scrambled for cabs to make their lunches at the Red Sage or Olives, Durst had skinned between thirty-six hundred and four thousand catfish. Moments before each live fish arrives at the skinning station, it is stunned by electric shock, beheaded by one woman, and eviscerated by another, who jams each fish’s intestinal cavity against a stationary vacuum pipe called a "long gun." In order to keep her job at Freshwater Farms, Durst has to skin a minimum of twelve fish a minute. At times, a white supervisor stands behind her with a stopwatch, calculating minutes and catfish. Durst never falls below fifteen, at times hits twenty, and has skinned more than twenty-five catfish a minute.
'nuff said. Read this chapter, then buy the book.