Thanksgiving Turkeys And The People Who Love Them


First of all, I want to state clearly and for the record that most of this entry is something that I am sharing, with the original author’s permission.

The author in this case is Ellen Byerrum, the author of the “Crimes Of Fashion” mystery novels. (If you have not read any of them, I would highly recommend them, but I’m getting off topic.) Yesterday, she reposted an entry on her LiveJournal that she wrote a year ago. I read it when it was originally posted, and when I read it again yesterday, it was just as jaw-droppingly funny as the first time I read it.

As I said in a comment I left on her LJ, this is too good not to share with as many people as possible. And while it is PG-rated, I don’t know if this could make it to the IRLF front page. So, with Ms. Byerrum’s kind permission, I am sharing it with you here.

[NOTE: I had to make a few minor changes in formatting to make things look as they did on her site. Everything else remains the same.]

Originaly posted at

Thanksgiving Turkeys And The People Who Love Them

This week in honor of Thanksgiving, I am reposting a piece I wrote last year. Why? Because I really can’t think of Thanksgiving without turkeys and I can’t think of turkeys without remembering one of the stranger and funnier interviews I had as a safety reporter. It’s always been a good conversation opener, or closer. (It could also be subtitled The Sex Lives Of Turkeys.)

Some years ago, when I was reporting for a DC trade journal, I interviewed an ergonomist who described to me possibly the worst job I can imagine. On a turkey farm. This job is just one small step, possibly the first, on the long road to getting that tasty roast turkey on your table for Thanksgiving dinner. On my beat, I covered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, workplace injuries and job-related stress and violence, and I regularly learned about terrible jobs. This is certainly in the top ten terrible jobs of all time. And I guarantee you, whether you’re employed or not and whatever it is you do for a living, you will be thankful you do not have this job.

My story was never published. Anything that smacked of a smirk was frowned upon at this publication, and my editor said that although my story was fascinating, there was no way he would ever print it. Nevertheless, I have always wanted it to see the light of day, beyond entertaining friends during cocktail hour. This story is rated PG-13, and it’s about turkeys and before they ultimately get turned into dinner, so stop now, if you’re easily offended. Or a vegan. I will try to use euphemisms where I can.

Turkeys: An Ergonomics Challenge

Ergonomics is basically the science of fitting the workplace environment and equipment to the worker to maximize comfort and safety. It’s not just about office chairs and keyboards; it can apply to any workplace, and ergonomic solutions can be creative, as my informant demonstrated. To preserve his privacy, I’ll just call the ergonomist in this story “Ian.”

On one of his first jobs after graduating with his degree, Ian was called in to address injuries being suffered by women working at a turkey farm in Canada. The female workers reported chronic shoulder and wrist injuries. The stressful part of their job was holding the tom turkeys firmly with one arm, while with the other hand manually “encouraging” them to “donate” their sperm in order for the turkey hens to be artificially inseminated. It required a willing turkey, a supple wrist and a little glass tube. The women’s job title was probably something like “sperm collection technician.” But what did these workers call themselves? TURKEY JERKERS. Well, duh, as they say.

So why do we need turkey jerkers? Why not just let the turkeys do what comes naturally to create young turkeys, you may well ask? I asked that question too. According to Ian, apparently the toms are very aggressive in their mating, and they tend to scar the poor hens with their talons. Better to lend nature a helping hand. Ian also noted that the workers’ problems were exacerbated because — well, the tom turkeys really enjoyed this part of the process. So much so that after making their donations, they would line jump to take another turn with the turkey jerkers. But the second time, that tom would take much longer to deliver the desired results, if at all. Bad for productivity — and the women’s wrists. (The turkeys didn’t seem to mind.) There was no system to determine which turkeys had already had their fun for that day. And to make it worse, Ian said, the tom turkeys were huge, up to fifty pounds apiece, and very excitable, while most of the workers were petite Asian women. With sore shoulders and aching wrists.

Obviously, it was in the best interest of the employer and the workers (and the turkeys) to find a better way to do this job and keep these women from sustaining musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). After all, how many people, even in these recessionary times, are willing to do that job for a turkey? (“Not I,” said the little red hen.) And for the Washington, DC attorneys who argue that up is down and night is day, and there are no such things as work-related MSDs, just save it for the turkeys, guys. Okay?

Now, if I had ever thought about it, which I hadn’t, I would have assumed there was some high-tech machine that handled turkey sperm donation. For all I know, at present there may be some kind of space-age SpermGizmo that does the job. And I hesitate to consider what happens in the rest of the animal kingdom. We’ll leave that up to The Nature Channel. But these women at the turkey farm were doing it all by hand.

Ergonomic And Creative Solutions

Ian set out to find a solution. A couple of fixes to address the shoulder injuries seemed relatively easy. He had stands constructed so the big wiggly birds could rest on them, instead of the tiny women struggling to hold them up. He devised a labeling system — birds now wore colored rings around their necks to determine whether they had donated that day, so they could be separated from the rest of the turkeys waiting their turn.

But how to alleviate the wrist injuries? Ian put his mind to it and the lightbulb clicked on. Remember, ergonomics is finding an effective solution to the problem, whatever it takes. He went to an adult “specialty” store, named something like the “Pink Pussycat,” where everyone wore tight black leather outfits and showed a lot of bare flesh. Except Ian. He was wearing his best suit. He wasn’t there for posters of pretty hens to entice the toms. He asked for two dozen — let’s call them “personal massagers.” Needless to say, the sales clerk was impressed.

“Two dozen? What on Earth are you going to use two dozen for?” the clerk wanted to know.

“Don’t ask,” Ian said.

“Oh! I see,” the clerk responded, as if he had a clue. “I’ve got to go in back.”

Ian heard some commotion in the back and the manager came out to meet this amazing customer. “Wow. We’ve never sold a case of these before,” he said. “You’re gonna need batteries too. Use the Duracells; they last longer.”

Ian returned to the farm with the massagers and distributed them to the workers. Voila! The massagers “worked like a charm,” Ian said. The turkeys were happy. The turkey jerkers were happy. Mission accomplished. Until . . .

The turkey farm called him back one day. Their batteries were all dead. No problem, Ian said; just buy more batteries, keep them in stock. But the farm had a company policy, he was told. Batteries were considered an employee theft problem. They wouldn’t stock anything people might easily steal. When the farm’s purchasing manager asked what they were used for, Ian explained.

“Oh my god! That will never do,” the manager said, and refused to okay the battery purchase. “I can’t expense these!”

Our intrepid ergonomist went back to work on the problem. And he headed back to the Pink Pussycat. The clerk remembered him well. He was a local legend. “You’re the dude who bought twenty-four [massagers]!” Ian explained they were working just fine, but they were running out of batteries. The clerk, in awe, asked him how long the massagers were being used at a time.

“About sixteen hours a day,” Ian said. “Don’t ask.”

The clerk was stunned. The manager was stunned. Ian asked if they had a comparable plug-in model with a long cord. They did. He bought two dozen of those.

They begged him to reveal what he was using all those massagers for. You gotta tell us, dude! Our resourceful ergonomist, however, kept his professional secret — and the turkeys’ mystery. Finally the ergonomic challenges of turkey jerking had been solved. Human ingenuity saved the day (and the turkey jerkers’ shoulders and wrists — and jobs).

In the course of my interview, Ian went on to tell me other stories, for example about ergonomics for strippers and poker players. But those are tales for another day.

Copyright 2010, 2011 Ellen Byerrum. Reposted by permission.

Okay, it’s me again. I want to thank Ms. Byerrum for allowing me to share this with you. This story is just too good not to share with as wide an audience as possible. And I have to admit, I am thankful that I am not a turkey jerker.

You know, this brings a whole new meaning to the term “Food Porn.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!



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