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Government Accountability Project

November/December 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

In 1993, GAP, with support from PRRAC, chronicled working conditions in the North Carolina poultry industry through confidential interviews with line workers in six processing plants. The study came in the wake of a fire at the Imperial Foods poultry plant in Hamlet that killed 25 workers and injured 56 others. In it's eleven
years of operation, the plant had never been inspected for health and safety violations. The ill-fated workers knew that fires in the plant were common, and emergency doors were regularly locked or inaccessible; however, out of fear of termination, they did not report the numerous safety violations to the state or federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration

GAP's research uncovered horrendous labor conditions at the six poultry plants it investigated, along with countless food safety violations. The workers were overworked, underpaid, and treated with a shocking lack of respect for human dignity. They were forced to work while sick and injured in filthy conditions rife with fecal matter, maggots and toxic substances. Oftentimes they were not given access to bathroom facilities. They were threatened with termination, via notices on company letterhead, if they supported unionization.

Moreover, the study revealed that the state and federal OSHAs were negligent in their inspection duties and tragically ill equipped at handling and following through on complaints of retaliation against those who did report health and safety violations. The agencies' failure to enforce 051-IA whistleblower protections created a "chilling effect" on workers in the sweltering plants, as they failed to complain about health and safety violations for fear of termination.

Working with citizens groups, labor unions and reform-minded members of Congress, GAP followed up its investigation with attempts to reform OSHA regulations. Early attempts at legislation included extending the statute of limitations for making whistleblower retaliation complaints from 30 days to six months and creating a "private right of action" for employees to pursue discrimination cases against employers on their own when OSHA failed to do so. Unfortunately, the legislative attempts at reform have been unsuccessful to date.

In light of these developments, GAP has initiated a broader, policy reform-oriented Worker Health & Safety program, which has several long-term goals, including improving and broadening legal protections for corporate employees who report worker health and safety concerns, and reforming OSHA so the agency will perform its function of protecting workers.

In pursuing these goals, GAP has initiated the test case of a whistleblower at the chemical weapons incinerator on Johnston Atoll, an island 700 miles southwest of Hawaii. The case details an extraordinary legacy of years of OSHA delay and inaction on a meritorious and substantial complaint about phenomenal workplace hazards involving the most deadly substances ever manufactured. GAP has filed a mandamus action in district court in an attempt to force the Department of Labor to enforce its findings of prohibited retaliation against the whistleblower. The lawsuit claims that the DOL has acted unlawfully in not enforcing the protections provided by the OSH Act.

A legal victory would require significant change, perhaps bringing the focus upon Congress to fund necessary enforcement efforts. A legal defeat would lay the foundation for approaching Congress about the need for structural change. These activities would help define a broader national public education campaign for whistleblower rights for those who identify dangerous and unhealthy workplace conditions.

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