June 25, 2010

Poultry Processing Plant Receives Maryland’s Highest Ever Fine for Occupational Safety & Health Violations

Roni Neff, PhD

Roni Neff, PhD

Research and Policy Director

Center for a Livable Future

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.

THE BACKGROUND

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.”

chickenworkersThe 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 knifegloveImmigration 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.

INHERENT HAZARDS, AVOIDABLE RISKS

Either way, this fine should send a message to those working on food systems and public health issues that we need to focus more attention on how our food system is affecting workers.  In fact, some food-related jobs are among the most dangerous in the country – for example, among all industries, animal processing other than poultry had the highest incidence of nonfatal injuries causing days away from work or job transfer (i.e., serious injuries) in 2008, and the poultry processing industry had a rate double the national average.  The agriculture/fishing/hunting sector had the highest work-related death rate of any sector.  Further, 15 percent of all US work-related fatalities in 2008 occurred in the trucking and warehousing sector.

These industries have high inherent hazards, supplemented by high avoidable risks.  The often low wage, minority and immigrant workforces in these industries have relatively little power in the workplace to reduce their hazards and often suffer substantially from the consequences of injuries and illnesses.  For example, Human Rights Watch reported in 2005 that problems in the meat/poultry processing industries included:

  • Failure to prevent serious workplace injury/illness
  • Denial of workers’ compensation
  • Interference with unionizing
  • Exploitation of immigrant workforce

They stated: “These are not occasional lapses by employers paying insufficient attention to modern human resources management policies.These are systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment.”

For poultry industry work, inherent hazards include :

  • repetitive tasks
  • sharp tools
  • slippery surfaces/dampness
  • heavy loads
  • temperature for food safety
  • infectious agents (excreta, feathers, etc)
  • airborne dusts
  • allergens

Avoidable risks include:

  • Inadequate industrial hygiene (including noncompliance with OSHA standards),
  • Production pressures (line speed, mandatory overtime, inadequate breaks)

“The line is so fast there is no time to sharpen the knife.  The knife gets dull and you have to cut harder.  That’s when it really starts to hurt, and that’s when you cut yourself.” [from the above-mentioned Human Rights Watch report]

  • Discouraging reporting & absenteeism

“If you are hurt or injured, DO NOT REPORT IT, if you want to keep your job.” – Martha Arroyo on the instructions she received during orientation

  • Hazards not addressed, minor health conditions escalate
  • Turnover up to 100% per year
  • Ready supply of new workers

In the early 1990s, threatened by the ergonomics standard, the poultry industry came together with OSHA and established nonbinding guidelines for lowering injury rates.  Indeed, rates have come down dramatically in that industry, as in many other industries – although underreporting throughout this industry remains a major concern and may play some role in declining rates.poultry_etool3

OSHA AND MOSH ENFORCEMENT

The Allen Family Foods case comes in the wake of a significant initiative by national OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) -currently run by David Michaels, a public health hero — to increase enforcement.  As Michaels explains:

  • “The mere threat of enforcement makes most drivers think twice about speeding even when they’re late for an appointment, or keeps them from having “just one more for the road.”
  • “The credible threat of enforcement also makes most employers think twice about cutting back on preventive maintenance, training or investments in safer working conditions.
  • “The fear of a serious citation and heavy fine should make employers consider the consequences of cutting corners on safety to meet a deadline.
  • “And the threat of strong enforcement can encourage employers to seek out a safety consultant or use the free services of our On-site Consultation Program.”

OSHA has also indicated they will do more to assure that states running their own OSHA programs (as Maryland does) keep up with national standards.  Congress is also looking at a new OSHA law, PAWA (Protecting America’s Worker’s Act) that could substantially increase civil and criminal penalties and bring the occupational safety and health regulatory structure into the modern age.

It’s about time!

The level of incentive for business to mitigate occupational health and safety hazards by complying with occupational safety and health regulations has been low.  Further, in Maryland as elsewhere, there is very little chance a worksite will even be inspected; it would take 125 years for the state to inspect every worksite, according to an AFL-CIO analysis.  Across the country, there have been only 430 inspections of poultry processors between 2005-2010, including non-routine inspections motivated by so-called “accidents” and deaths.  14 of these were in Maryland, including six due to “accidents”. (In the injury prevention field, the term, “accidents,” is generally avoided–how many of these events are truly “accidental?”)

MOVING FORWARD

The blog police are going to come after me for the length of this post, so let me just conclude with the following:

  • The existing occupational safety and health law in this country seriously needs an update.
  • OSHA has made important leaps forward on many fronts in the past year and a half. Their efforts to improve compliance with the existing law are needed.
  • Fines such as those at Allen Family Foods can serve an important purpose in highlighting the conditions workers face in the Allen plant and across the meat and poultry industries
  • The inherent hazards in animal processing are high; as the regional and local foods movement moves into the business of animal processing, it will be important to double and triple the efforts to address the inherent hazards, and to assure through management culture and other strategies that we never replicate the social conditions documented by Human Rights watch and others.

One Comment

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