Poultry Processor Discouraged Injured Workers From Seeing Doctors, Feds Find

10/29/2014 05:43 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2014
Jan Stromme via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- One of the nation's leading poultry processors exposed its line workers to painful musculoskeletal injuries and discouraged them from reporting those injuries to doctors, an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found on Wednesday.

Wayne Farms, which bills itself as the fifth-largest poultry producer in the U.S., was issued 11 safety citations for hazards allegedly found at its plant in Jack, Alabama, nine of which were deemed "serious." The proposed fines for the citations top $100,000, which may be low for other regulatory agencies, but is quite stiff for OSHA, which is the federal government's workplace safety regulator. The company, which is based in Georgia, will have the option to appeal.

Significantly, OSHA decided to use what's known as the general duty clause in order to cite the company for hazards. Workplace safety law states that employers have a "general duty" to protect workers from harmful situations, though regulators usually rely on more specific standards to levy fines.

It's been more than a decade since OSHA used the general duty clause to cite a poultry plant for ergonomic hazards. Poultry workers, many of whom are immigrants, are generally low-paid and vulnerable to repetitive-motion injuries, particularly carpal tunnel syndrome. The case against Wayne Farms may indicate a new aggressiveness on the part of OSHA when it comes to policing the industry.

"The citations issued by OSHA are landmark," Celeste Monforton, an occupational health and safety expert, said in an email to The Huffington Post. "It's a breath of fresh air to finally see the Labor Department taking a tough stand against ergonomic hazards. The fact that it did so tells me the situation for workers was egregious."

In a statement, OSHA officials said that the hazards at the plant led to "serious injuries" for workers that went unreported to doctors as well as occupational safety officials. Inspectors also found that workers at the plant were forced to see the company nurse repeatedly before they were referred to an independent doctor.

"Wayne Farms effectively concealed the extent to which these poultry plant workers were suffering work-related injuries and illnesses," Joseph Roesler, OSHA’s area director in Mobile, Alabama, said in a statement. "And as a result, it reported an artificially lower injury and illness rate."

In a statement through a spokesperson, Wayne Farms said it was contesting several of the citations "while also investigating the circumstances surrounding the allegations." The company said some of the citations were in "vague, general terms that are hard to address or investigate."

"[O]thers specifically called out problem areas the company has either already addressed or that were in fact not violations of any specific regulation or safety protocol," the statement read.

Wayne Farms does business under the brand names of Wayne Farms, Dutch Quality House and Platinum Harvest. According to its website, the company processes 2.5 billion pounds of poultry each year at its 11 plants.

With the help of lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Wayne Farms workers filed a complaint against the company with OSHA earlier this year.

The Center for Progressive Reform, an advocacy group that pushes for stronger workplace safety standards, said the fine proposed for Wayne Farms "shows OSHA's commitment to addressing the widespread hazards that poultry workers face."

This post has been updated with comment from Wayne Farms.

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