Walt Frazier has almost always been in live hang. The term, like most things in a modern-day chicken slaughterhouse, is vivid and precise: Chickens, fresh from the farm, are hung by their feet in metal shackles and carried off to the kill room. Ask most workers about live hang and they shake their heads. Gutting, deboning or any of the other methodical tasks crucial to getting a chicken to the supermarket are far better than wrestling, in the near dark, with an often agitated bird.

In a chicken plant, all tasks are calibrated to the second, and each worker, in effect, is a part of the machine. Frazier was a great live hanger and an efficient machine in his own right. He could grab a reluctant chicken off a conveyor belt and hoist it overhead at a pace of one bird every two seconds, real talent in a world defined almost exclusively by time and volume. Live hang's first shift runs from 5:48 a.m. to 2:18 p.m. at the Allen Family Foods plant here, and by shift's end, Frazier alone could feed about 10,000 birds into the Delmarva peninsula's $1.6 billion-a-year chicken industry.

Sixty million pounds of chicken are processed every week at a dozen slaughterhouses in Delaware and the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia. Driven by consumer demand for cheap chicken with no bones, production has more than doubled in the last three decades. Companies have added extra shifts, extra processing lines and extra work days as they muster the army of workers that labors round-the-clock in plants not far from the beaches of Rehoboth and Ocean City.

The industry now sets the pace and contours of small towns throughout Delmarva.

The chickens raised and processed there produce more than 750,000 tons of manure a year, making the industry the primary source of pollution reaching key portions of the Chesapeake and coastal bays. At the same time, poultry companies have delivered decent-paying jobs in such quantity that every shift change can be calculated by the pickup in traffic along main roads.

As many as 10,000 people work inside the slaughterhouses. But turnover is high, leading some companies to recruit foreign workers. Latinos now hold about one-third of the chicken jobs, filling spots once held mostly by African Americans, a change that is dramatically altering the region's demographics.

Newcomers and veterans work side by side in a process that begins with live hang and ends with chicken cut, packed and labeled. And while slaughterhouses may differ in some ways, their bottom line is the same: The profit for chicken averages 2.5 to 3.5 cents per pound. That means the amount earned is determined, to a great extent, by the volume and speed of the plant and by how well the workers adjust to both.

Few places are more dangerous than a chicken plant: The U.S. Labor Department says one of every six poultry workers suffers a work-related injury or illness every year. Crowding has even given rise to a special injury, "neighbor cuts," when workers inadvertently cut the person next to them.

Frazier, after two decades in what amounts to the front line of the chicken industry, can trace his career with his scars. Chicken claws have cut so deep and so often that his right forearm is a patchwork of curved lines. The black skin on his knuckles has been rubbed so raw that it has been discolored to permanent pink. Grabbing and lifting chickens has, over time, torn the lining of his wrists, resulting in two operations.

"Look at these scars here," the 41-year-old Frazier, a Pentecostal preacher, said. "They are not going anywhere."

The plants where Frazier has worked are now technological marvels. Where Frazier once ripped a chicken's windpipe with his bare hands, a machine now deftly removes the organs, 16 birds at a clip.

At the same time, plants retain the vestiges, even the same tools, of the back-room butcher. Consumers want processed chicken, boneless and skinless, cut and molded, and technology has found no better alternative to the precision and efficiency of human hands. This places an extraordinary demand on the workers, the repetitive nature of cutting and moving chicken over time taxing hands, wrists, arms and shoulders.

The slaughterhouse challenges the senses. The plant smells like wet feathers. Temperatures range from below freezing--in what is known as the 28-degree-room, where packages await shipping--to 120 degrees by the scalder, which loosens feathers. In the summer, live hang becomes so unbearably hot that chickens can suffocate in less than a minute.

The din is such that yearly hearing tests are necessary. Water from high-pressure hoses soaks the concrete floor. Fat turns surfaces slick. Blood drips from gutted chickens.

For Frazier, every day in live hang ended the same way. He removed his orange overalls, streaked with dirt, feathers and chicken excrement. He took off his gloves, torn by countless claws. Off came the back brace. At home, in Bridgeville, Del., he soaked his hands in hot water, alcohol and salt, hands so sore it hurts to hold the telephone for long. "All the time, the numbness be there."

A career in chicken and a lifetime on the Eastern Shore made him invaluable to the chicken industry but expendable elsewhere--the only jobs he could get when he went looking after surgery were as a part-timer. So he set aside warnings from his doctor and returned to live hang, to the $355.50-a-week job, including a $40 bonus for good attendance. To lifting thousands of birds, 4 1/2 to 6 pounds each.

He stuck with it until this fall, when new hand troubles forced a third surgery and reassignment to lighter work. All along the way, he relied on faith and the Bible. "There are days I don't feel like working. I say a prayer to God to put me through."

Keeping Pace

The modern chicken industry was born on Delmarva in 1923. Today the region is the country's fifth-largest poultry producer, selling primarily in the Northeast yet also as far away as Russia and Asia. (Washington area grocers such as Giant and Safeway buy most of their chicken from the South, the top-ranking poultry region, because it's cheaper.)

Tyson Foods Inc. owns two plants on Delmarva. Perdue Farms Inc., based in Salisbury, Md., has five processing plants in the area. Less well-known are Mountaire Farms, Allen Family Foods, and Townsends Inc.

Inside the plants the work has been broken down, for peak efficiency, to specific jobs: puller, shoulder cutter, basket stacker. The sole task of a backup killer is to slice the throats of birds the automated blade misses. The jobs require little skill but maximum endurance. A shoulder cutter on a breast deboning line, at Mountaire, for example, slices a knife into meat and bone 27 times a minute, about 1,600 an hour.

Plants rank themselves based on pounds of chicken produced each week, and conveyor lines are cranked to run at 91 chickens a minute, twice as fast as two decades ago.

"What you're dealing with is cost per pound per man-hour, boiled down to a thousandth of a cent," said Jerry Birl, a business agent for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents workers in six of the peninsula's 12 plants.

The line stops only when equipment breaks, accidents occur or food safety inspectors order a halt. At Perdue's Milford, Del., plant, each minute the line is down costs the company $50 to $100, according to complex manager Keith Moore.

Line speed is regulated only by the Department of Agriculture, which monitors speed for reasons of food safety, not worker strain. Limits are set to give inspectors time to check birds for disease or contamination.

In 1997, Perdue's Georgetown, Del., plant violated the limit at least 22 times, all but one on the night shift, according to Agriculture Department records. No line speed violations have been documented since, Agriculture officials said.

There is a widely held belief among Latino workers, many of whom work nights because they have less seniority, that the line speeds up then. "You feel it," said Raymond Tames, who has worked day and night shifts.

A Perdue spokeswoman said the line does not run faster at night. She said the company was aware of only one line speed violation in 1997 at its Georgetown plant. Company records show it was the only such violation in the last four years, she said.

The kill line at Frazier's plant runs at 210 birds a minute, faster than the plant as a whole because it feeds three evisceration lines, each running at 70 birds. Workers must grab and hang 21 to 23 chickens a minute. When workers don't show up, often the case on Mondays, "you have a gap in the line, empty shackles, and then they'll turn it up," Frazier said.

No one regulates line speed in live hang, and Frazier said he has seen supervisors increase it to 215 birds a minute. Mike Pilcher, vice president at Allen, acknowledged that the kill line sometimes runs faster when not enough chickens are being taken in for processing. But he said the increase lasts only a few minutes.

Frazier's efficiency--"I do 26 a minute," he said proudly--had its rewards. When the plant was short on help, he often was put at the head of the line to set the pace, sometimes for two hours straight. When that happened, he said, "you have to work a bit harder to try to make the line stay full."

Wear and Tear

When his shift is over, Frazier pulls into the trailer park in Bridgeville. Pictures of Jesus adorn the walls of his home. On weekends, vocation takes him and his wife, Shirley, also a minister, to nursing homes. His daughter Alisa, 24, and her toddler, Tyaisha Renee, share the three-bedroom, comfortably furnished trailer.

Like many of the African American workers who have traditionally filled the chicken plants, Frazier was born on the peninsula. Except for two years doing odd jobs, he has worked in chickens since high school. Frazier's father was a chicken-catcher, corralling live chickens for slaughter. His uncle still is a catcher. At one point, his mother and two brothers were line workers. For Frazier, the cost of a lifetime in chicken has been high. "The pain is there all the time," he said, resting his hands on his knees.

The hurt started four years ago, before he heard about "repetitive stress" or knew the lining of his wrist bones could rupture from overuse, prompting fluid to leak and cause painful cysts. The nurse at the chicken plant told him not to worry, even as the lump on his right wrist swelled. Finally, a doctor told him he needed surgery to remove a cyst. That was two summers ago.

When he went back to work the first time, he said, he told plant managers that doctors had ordered "light duty." A company official, testifying later at a hearing to determine Frazier's workers compensation benefits, said managers were never informed he needed light duty. Frazier returned to live hang. Over time, his left wrist began to hurt. A second operation was needed, and now he has identical scars. He returned to live hang again in May. "The bills and everything, things got tight," said Shirley Frazier.

Poultry workers earn less than others in manufacturing--and are injured at twice the rate. Fatal injuries, while rare, do occur. In October, a Tyson worker in Berlin, Md., was killed while cleaning a metal vat, known as the chiller, where paddles churn gutted chickens in ice-cold water. The empty chiller was on. Charles Sheppard, 44, fell in. The paddles crushed his head. He died immediately, according to Worcester County investigators.

Maryland's occupational safety and health office cited Tyson for five violations and fined it $22,400, all of which Tyson is contesting.

Elsewhere in the country, four other Tyson employees and two men catching chickens in Tyson chicken houses have died since April. The spate of deaths prompted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to review the cases. The company, the country's largest chicken producer, welcomes the review, said a Tyson spokesman.

Much more common are afflictions like Frazier's. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that poultry work has the third-highest incidence of cumulative trauma disorder, after meatpacking and auto assembly. The condition is caused mostly by repetitive motion.

Poultry workers are almost three times as likely as employees in private industry to miss a day of regular work because of illness or injury. An OSHA survey released this year found that half of injuries and illnesses suffered by poultry workers were directly attributable to ergonomically related hazards.

Last Monday, OSHA unveiled proposed regulations that would require employers to correct workplace conditions that involve repetitive motion, overexertion or awkward postures. The proposal, opposed for almost eight years by business and some members of Congress, could cover an estimated 27 million workers, including those in chicken.

On Delmarva, about two-thirds of the plants, including the Allen plant where Frazier works, reported illness and injury rates below the industry average, according to partial data provided by all five companies to The Washington Post. The remaining one-third recorded rates considerably higher than the industry average.

Allen, Mountaire Farms and Perdue--which has widely varying rates at its Delmarva plants--credit lower rates to treating minor problems quickly and rotating workers among jobs to prevent muscle fatigue. At Mountaire's huge plant in Selbyville, Del., the company has also redesigned equipment, for example, moving the live hang line closer to workers to reduce their reach.

At plants with above average injury rates--Perdue's Salisbury plant, Tyson's Temperanceville, Va., plant and Townsends' Millsboro, Del., facility--company officials said the higher rates reflected better reporting, even of minor problems. "We have been extremely honest and aboveboard," said Ben Mackey, corporate safety director at Townsends, which was fined $45,000 in 1992 by the federal OSHA for a series of problems, including failing to record injuries.

All the companies have safety and health programs, and a few are experimenting with special tools, such as pneumatic scissors that reduce strain. But these remedies are costly. Pneumatic shears cost $2,000 a pair and require more upkeep, compared with less than $20 for ordinary scissors.

Labor unions and government agencies monitor the companies' efforts. But only about 40 percent of the processing line workers in Delmarva are represented by a union, and Buddy Mays, president of Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, acknowledged that it is out of touch with the fastest-growing group of chicken workers: Latinos.

Three years ago, as Latinos were about to stage a walkout at Mountaire to protest a firing, the union had no Spanish-speaking shop stewards. After the incident, the union opened an additional office to serve Hispanic workers and hired more Spanish-speakers. Still, "not many people know about the union," said Maria Martinez, a shop steward.

OSHA faces a massive gap between its available resources and its task. In Delaware, for example, OSHA has four inspectors to cover 22,000 workplaces. Against those odds, they conduct about 200 inspections a year.

Inspections take place only when a fatality or serious accident happens, an employee or union signs a formal complaint, or an industry is targeted because of high injury rates. According to records reviewed by The Washington Post, inspections frequently result in a negotiated settlement rather than a citation, with fines substantially reduced based on a plant's previous safety record and pledge to fix problems quickly.

At the Allen plant where Frazier works, Juan Villagomez slipped into an uncovered ice auger two years ago. The auger runs parallel to the floor, and crushes ice with slow-moving blades. The auger slowly crushed his right foot. He tried to pull his leg out, but could not. "I was screaming and looking for something to turn the machine off," said Villagomez, 31. No switch was ever found. Eventually, the machine tore his leg off, freeing Villagomez enough so he could drag himself to the plant floor.

No one notified OSHA, which had inspected the plant a month earlier. Despite local media reports about the accident, the federal agency did not learn of it until The Post called two years later as part of this report.

"If somebody would have called me, I probably would have sent somebody there," said Lacey Sutton, director of the Delaware OSHA office.

In recent years, Jim Lewis, an Episcopal priest based in Sussex County, Del., has taken on the industry. Lewis, 64, helped found the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, a coalition of farmers, catchers, line workers, environmentalists, the union and churches.

Their goal is to raise awareness about issues from pollution to pay rates to plant conditions. Lewis favors the dramatic gesture and when he preaches about the industry tosses pieces of chicken to the congregations to get across his point.

People have a responsibility to know where their food comes from, he said, to "never forget what's in front of them, their chicken dinner, and the fingerprints on that chicken."

A Shifting Work Force

After his second surgery, Frazier filed a workers compensation claim seeking medical expenses and lost wages for the seven months he said he was too hurt to work.

The Delaware workers compensation board ruled in June that "the strenuous, repetitive work" caused his injuries. The board awarded Frazier medical expenses and three weeks of total disability benefits, or $711. It agreed with the company's contention that he should have tried harder to find light-duty assignments and said he was not motivated to return to work sooner because he was getting union disability checks.

Back at work, the pain in his wrists continued. He had a third operation in October for "trigger thumb" on his right hand, common when fingers cannot flex or extend because of swollen tendons. He went back to less strenuous work this month, bagging gizzards, and is pursuing additional disability benefits.

For many others, workers compensation payments are often not an option. Injured workers say it's common for companies to keep them at the plant, paying them to sit in the cafeteria, doing little or no work. The companies say the practice lets workers collect a full day's pay rather than a lower disability check. But lawyers who represent workers say it's cheaper to give full wages for a short while rather than foot long-term medical bills under workers compensation. "Repetitive stress injuries can stretch on for years," said Ed Gill, a Delaware lawyer who handles such cases.

Some injured workers complain the company's medical procedure discourages prompt treatment, especially by a doctor of their choosing. Most companies say they rely on nurses to treat workers initially. Often, the workers receive painkillers, or have their hands bandaged or braced, then are sent back to the line. In Frazier's case, the company doctor who first treated him told him his cysts were most likely unrelated to work, according to the doctor's testimony before the compensation board.

Frazier is hoping to use his disability check to quit chicken and open a restaurant, or better yet, a television repair shop. That work would also be hard on his hands, but "once you're your own boss," he said, "things would be different."

For now, Frazier sees no alternative to plant work. But he hopes to be the last member of his family to make it a career. His daughter Alisa is working at the same plant, in large part because she knows poultry pays best among unskilled jobs. But she says that once she saves enough, she will go to college and learn about computers. "I'm planning on coming out of there," she said.

For the poultry industry, Alisa Frazier's is the lost generation. With unemployment at record lows, younger African Americans have more opportunities than their parents, and chicken companies have suffered in the competition.

The worker shortage is "getting a little worse every year," said Pilcher, of Allen Family Foods, which operates Harbeson and two other slaughterhouses.

Plant managers say the first impression of their operations are shocking but not long-lasting. Still, industry executives say they have a hard sell. Strict food safety regulations guarantee, for example, that plants will be cold and wet no matter what.

"The business is what it is," said Chuck Dix, manager of the Townsends plant in Millsboro.

Many people do make a career out of poultry. Plant newsletters routinely chronicle people who have spent decades on the line. But though many plants have a core of longtime workers, companies may have to replace 20 percent of their employees every few months. "It's what drives plant managers bananas," Pilcher said, "because every day, the company still has the same number of birds that have to be processed."

Companies are constantly devising incentives to attract and hold workers. The companies say they pay a fair wage--about $7.80 an hour after one year. Firms now also award bonuses up to $1,000 for promptness, attendance and referrals. A year ago, Mountaire redesigned its cafeteria, installing 10 televisions so workers can watch their favorite show, "The Price Is Right." In September, the company gave a new $12,000 Mercury Tracer to someone who worked the whole summer.

Even with those enticements, the industry comes up short.

Two companies called a military base in New Jersey to ask whether refugees arriving from Kosovo would like plant jobs. Allen recruits in Puerto Rico. Mountaire relies on labor recruiters in Texas and delivers a free set of housewares to new arrivals, now almost all Latinos.

They are drawn by the wages, low by U.S. standards, but considerable for Mexicans and Guatemalans. A typical worker in Mexico may make $4 a day.

Money is the reason Gerardo Cortes, a Mexican man with rough hands, walked into a recruiting office in McAllen, Tex., in June and signed up for one of 50 jobs at Mountaire Farms. It would be his second stint in Delmarva, and Cortes, 42, did not look forward to it.

Experience had taught him some valuable lessons. He believed workers who do not speak English are assigned the nastiest tasks. On his journey from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to the Eastern Shore of Maryland--a 52-hour marathon trip by bus--he prepared as best he could. He memorized important English phrases, written on a small piece of paper, meticulously folded in his wallet:

How long until the break?

I need rubber boots.

This work is too hard.

Metro staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Tomorrow: A changing work force remakes a town

INSIDE A CHICKEN PROCESSING PLANT

Perdue's processing plant in Accomac, Va., is the largest plant in Delmarva. It is also one of the most technologically advanced; many of the highly specialized tasks once performed by hand have been automated. The plant employs 1,650 workers and processes some 320,000 chickens each day. Although processing techniques can vary from plant to plant, the following is an example of how the process works in Accomac:

1. EGGS

Many processing plants own hatcheries. Eggs are stacked in trays that auto-matically rotate 45 degrees every 60 minutes. After 21 days, the chicks hatch. They are then misted with vaccine to immunize them against poultry diseases.

2. CHICKS

Growers receive just-hatched chicks from the hatcheries. One chicken house can hold as many as 25,000 birds. Growers are responsible for the chicks' care and feeding until they reach market size, about five pounds. Poultry scientists have shaved weeks off the time it takes before a bird is ready for slaughter. In 1940, a chick needed 13 weeks and 16 pounds of feed. Today, chicks need seven weeks and 10 pounds of feed.

3. LIVE RECEIVING

The chickens arrive at the slaughterhouse as early as 1 a.m. They travel 18 to 24 birds per crate, with as many as 6,000 birds on a single trailer. By now, the birds have not been fed for eight hours to prevent fecal contamination. They do receive water. They usually are kept in crates for an hour before the trailers are unloaded. The crated birds move by conveyor belt to a quiet, darkened room.

4. LIVE HANGING

Workers lift the birds from their crates on a conveyor belt and hang them by their feet on a moving line of hooks called shackles. This is the highest-paying job in the plant. Live hangers earn $8.80 an hour for a day shift and $8.90 an hour for a night shift to contend with the birds, which can peck and scratch. A good live hanger can hang 27 birds a minute.

5. KILL ROOM

Hanging by their feet, the chickens enter the kill room, where their heads are dipped in a solution of water and salt. The salt is needed to increase conductivity. A shock of 16 volts of electricity is delivered through the shackles, rendering the birds unconscious. Within seconds, they move past an automated blade that slits their throats. The birds' blood drains for exactly 90 seconds, plant managers say, or the meat will toughen.

6. SCALDING, DEFEATHERING

The dead birds are lowered into troughs of scalding water, where the temperature can reach 128 degrees. The birds circulate there for about 2A minutes while the hot water helps loosen their feathers. The birds then pass through a rubber-fingered machine that helps pull the feathers out. A flame singes away any remaining hair.

7. EVISCERATION

After the birds' heads and feet are removed, the bodies move onto eviscerating lines. Much of the evisceration process has been automated, but as little as 20 years ago, these jobs were performed by hand. The chickens move along the line at a rate of 91 birds a minute. The oil gland is extracted from each bird's tail before the entire viscera package is removed by an automated spoon. USDA inspectors examine the birds to make certain the birds meet USDA requirements. On a separate line, the viscera package is separated so that organs such as hearts and livers can be harvested. A screwlike machine is used to clear out the crop and windpipe of each bird before its neck is removed.

8. CHLORINATION

High-pressure chlorinated water jets thoroughly clean the entire bird. Six to seven gallons of chlorinated water are used to clean each bird during processing.

9. INSPECTION

The birds are inspected for signs of fecal contamination before they are chilled.

Feet are sold in a thriving export market. Heads often are ground up and used in animal feed.

10. CHILLING

At this stage, the body temperature of the birds is about 98 degrees and must be lowered to 40 degrees or below before further processing can occur. Birds are sent to soak in the chiller for 73 minutes. Each chiller holds 20,000 gallons of chlorinated water. An additional half-gallon of water is added for each bird to provide continuous water exchange in the chiller.

11. GRADING

Once cooled, birds are rehung in the shackles to be graded. Perdue graders determine whether a bird is of Grade A standard and then check for an additional 22 quality standards that meet Perdue's Grade A requirements. This is considered one of the more prestigious jobs in the plant, as it requires a trained eye to detect bruises or damaged areas that need to be cut away from the bird. Whole birds are sent down the line for packaging; remaining birds are cut up and sold in pieces.

12. CUT UP

Birds are now divided into pieces. Most plants have automated this stage, with machinery cutting the birds' bodies into parts. Wings are detached from upper bodies. Legs, wings, breasts and thighs travel down separate conveyor belts to be packaged. Hand trimmers make certain the parts are uniformly cut.

13. BONING AND TRIMMING

Wearing wire mesh gloves, workers use a variety of knives and scissors to trim meat away from bone. An average line worker performing such tasks earns $7.80 an hour on a day shift and $7.90 an hour on a night shift. Workers are rotated every few hours to perform different tasks. This helps cut down on repetitive stress injuries, which affect the industry. Workers must perform their specific cutting task several hundred times an hour.

14. PACKAGING

Workers arrange trimmed parts in foam trays and seal them in plastic wrap. Labels identifying the product, weight and price are automatically affixed to the package. The product is packed in boxes and moved to the cooler room, waiting for delivery. Two hours and 45 minutes have elapsed since the live birds entered.

SOURCE: PERDUE FARMS INC.

REPORTING BY BRENNA MALONEY

CAPTION: At Mountaire Farms in Selbyville, Del., workers process millions of pounds of ready-to-cook chicken a week.

CAPTION: Walt Frazier's nearly 20 years as a chicken worker has taken a toll on his hands.

CAPTION: Walt Frazier, left, hopes his granddaughter, Tyaisha Renee, held by his wife, Shirley, will find a career outside the chicken industry.