Last week, North Carolina's Occupational Safety and Health division levied 49 citations and $178,000 in fines for workplace hazards on the House of Raeford Farms, one of nation's largest poultry processors. This action was taken in response to serious, repeat safety violations, many involving hazardous chemicals that pose a threat to the safety of both the plant workers and the community. These violations are startling given the company's past record:
"In 2003, House of Raeford worker Bruce Glover died after a leak sent chlorine gas seeping into the company's Rose Hill plant. The next year, a major ammonia leak at that plant forced a large-scale evacuation and sent 17 workers to the hospital with respiratory problems and burning throats. N.C. OSHA cited the company for chemical violations after each of those accidents - and each time agreed to slash the proposed penalties.
After the 2004 ammonia leak, regulators found that the company didn't do enough to prevent and detect such accidents and had not installed an alarm system to speed evacuations."
After these incidents and before the most recent inspections, the House of Raeford had been fined $117,000 but was able to whittle those fines down to $26,500. Unfortunately, negotiating OSHA fines down has become common practice in recent years, a practice that does little to discourage irresponsible companies from engaging in repeat violations.
That the inspections and fines were levied at all is due in no small part to the investigative series that the Charlotte Observer ran on the poultry industry and their continued reporting on the issues of safety violations, child labor, and illegal immigrant exploitation in the poultry industry, beginning with the The Cruelest Cuts, an extensive 6 part series. The series focused on the difficult and unsafe conditions facing the the 28,000 poultry workers in the region - conditions that seem more in tune with the turn-of-the century slaughterhouses depicted in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle than in our modern, high tech 21st century world. An editorial accompanying the series states:
"Our team of reporters and editors spent 22 months interviewing more than 200 poultry workers throughout the Southeast and analyzing industry documents. Their investigation soon led them to focus on one of the largest Carolinas-based poultry producers, House of Raeford. Its eight plants have been cited for more serious safety violations than all but two other poultry companies in recent years -- and more than some companies several times their size.
Our journalists found evidence that House of Raeford has failed to report serious injuries, including broken bones and carpal tunnel syndrome. They discovered that plant officials often dismissed workers' requests for medical care that would cost the company money.
They also found that House of Raeford has undergone a work force transformation. In the early 1990s, its workers were largely African Americans. Today, between 80 percent and 90 percent of workers at some of its plants are Latinos. Most have no legal standing in this country; most are poor.
They are our newest subclass."
It's difficult reading on the eve of the day when most of us prepare to enjoy a turkey feast tomorrow, but if not now, it's worth a bookmark for reading at a later time. We commend the Charlotte Observer for their reporting. When corporate social responsibility fails and when public policy enforcers are weak, it's important that someone take up the banner for worker and public safety.