Poultry Processing Plant Receives Maryland’s Highest Ever Fine for Occupational Safety & Health Violations
Wow: The state of Maryland has issued its highest ever occupational safety and health fine, to a poultry plant run by Allen Family Foods: $1.03 million. I wanted to blog about it both because I think it is important that those working on food systems and public health issues keep in mind not only the environmental and nutritional health implications of our food system, but also the impacts on the nearly 1/5 of US workers whose jobs involve food. I also wanted to blog about it because it is a big deal that MOSH (Maryland Occupational Safety & Health) and OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration) are stepping up enforcement.
MOSH issued the million dollar fine after a worker’s hand was seriously injured from reaching under a conveyor belt that should have been guarded but wasn’t. At the post-injury inspection of the Hurlock, MD plant, OSHA identified 51 violations – including 15 “willful” and one “egregious.” In recent years, OSHA has found over 200 violations at that plant. According to the state’s MOSH director, “The biggest problem we have here is repeated warnings over the years, and a lot of times they’d repair something or take care of the problem and then go right back to the same habits.”
The case follows a $182,000 OSHA fine last year to an Allen Family Foods poultry processing plant in Delaware for “hazards with industrial trucks, falls, personal protective equipment, machine guarding, electrical hazards, process safety management, respirators and emergency response” – incurred after MOSH suggested OSHA look at Allen’s non-Maryland plant.
While fines like these may not seem that high compared to those issued by EPA and other agencies, in occupational safety and health they are major. For example, in Maryland, the average fine per “serious” violation (e.g., posing substantial probability of death or serious physical harm) was only $688. That’s 78% of the national average, which itself is only $882.
Despite Allen Family Foods’ protestations that safety is its top priority, there is further evidence that the company has not emphasized a strong safety culture. In a case decided last year, 250 poultry plant employees challenged the company under the Fair Labor Standards Act, saying that the company should pay them for their time putting on and taking off safety gear. Disturbingly, and with national implications, the judge said that personal protective equipment wasn’t clothing and that the company didn’t have to pay. Way to encourage workers to gear up properly!
Allen Family Foods is less well known than a company like Perdue, but it is quite large. According to its website, the company sells 600 million pounds of chicken annually in the US and abroad, and owns breeding and hatchery facilities, feed mills, processing plants, feed grain production, and 28 company-owned growout farms. Allen also works with over 500 independent growout farms that grow company-provided chicks. About a fourth of the company’s processing staff are non-US born, and the company has an established partnership with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Allen Family Foods announced plans to appeal the million dollar fine, and has also announced it is actually selling the Hurlock plant. By contrast, after the Delaware fine, the company announced a 20% expansion of that plant, to enable producing 1.2 million chickens weekly.
Is Allen just a “bad actor,” and the rest of the industry is doing ok? Is MOSH making an example of Allen with this fine in order to motivate better compliance throughout the industry? I personally can’t say. Perhaps both. Read More >