November 26, 2008

The human cost of bringing poultry to the table

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.



So do the workers apply for legitimate work visas or do they continue to enter illegally and suffer the consequences of employers looking to take advantage of their situation to make more money. No surprise that these employers know they are hiring illegals who cannot legally work here and have no say in matters of safety. Answer? Abide by the law and apply for entry visas and levy criminal penalties against employers who knowingly hire these people. Amnesty is not an answer either but simply the path of least resistance. There are no simple or pleasant solutions to difficult problems....our weak willed politicians lack the character and the stones to make a decision. A subclass of injured workers is a disgrace.

Is there evidence that the practice of negotiating fines down is on the increase? I was under the impression that this has been common OSHA practice for decades.

Your point is well taken, Mike - "increased" is perhaps an inaccurate characterization. The best commentary I could find is from a recent Salon article: "For these companies the penalties are pocket change":

"But what Fairfax paints as sound policy, ex-OSHA officials and former Labor Department lawyers portray as weaknesses in the department's legal arm, the solicitor's office, that have persisted through Democratic and Republican administrations. These officials said department lawyers were overworked, overmatched and sometimes just afraid to stand up to companies that appealed citations, choosing instead to sharply reduce the proposed penalties. When labor attorneys did defend the agency's findings, the cases often languished before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, a panel of political appointees that has the final word on such cases short of federal court.

"The hard facts are that the department is understaffed," said J. Davitt McAteer, Labor's acting solicitor from February 1996 to December 1997. The system "tends to foster settlements and tends to diminish penalties on sometimes quite dubious grounds."

Not much has changed in nearly 50 years. See: "Harvest of Shame" It was a 1960 television documentary presented by broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow on CBS at Thanksgiving that showed the plight of American migrant agricultural workers. A quote that stuck with me was something like: "We don't have to own slaves anymore. We just rent them."


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This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on November 26, 2008 8:59 AM.

Ohio: Severed Joint and Several? was the previous entry in this blog.

Legal Advice on the Cheap is the next entry in this blog.

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