"Lessons From Poultry Plant Fire Ignored,"by Elaine Dodge & Terri Shuck \"We had a fire drill after the big fire in Hamlet. Before the drill, all the paths to the exits were cleared, but now they are blocked by boxes or machinery like they were before.\" - Golden Poultry employeeNovember/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race
September 3rd marked the second anniversary of the Imperial Foods fire in Hamlet, North Carolina that killed 25 workers and injured 56 others. In its eleven years of operation, the poultry plant had never been inspected for health and safety violations. The workers at Imperial knew that the doors were locked and that there were frequent fires in the fryer area. However, workers were afraid to report these abuses. They feared, with good reason, that they would be fired for registering a complaint with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration , (OSHA). This silence born of fear -deliberately instilled by management and exacerbated by government inaction -was another cause of the needless loss of life at Imperial.
Protection of whistleblowers is the Government Accountability Project's (GAP) mission. With support from PRRAC, GAP has gathered a current chronicle of the working conditions in the North Carolina poultry industry through confidential interviews with line workers in six processing plants. Unfortunately, we found that the problems that led to the Imperial tragedy are still pervasive. Our research included an examination of the Department of Labor's response in defending employees who lost their jobs for reporting health and safety violations. The government's record is abysmal.
Poultry Plant Work Is Hazardous to Your Health
Deregulation measures in recent years have led to an increase in line speeds up to 91 birds a minute. Accident and illness rates have exceeded 18 per 100 employees. The most common injuries sustained by workers are severed fingers, chronic back and leg ailments, and carpal tunnel syndrome, a crippling hand and arm disease resulting from rapid and repetitive hand motions.
The plant floors are covered with grease, water, and ice from the chillers that are intended to keep the chicken from spoiling. The drains are cleared only on the occasion of inspector visits. Workers report that clogged toilets often overflow onto the floor. Protective boots are not routinely issued. Neither are ear plugs, so employees working with the loud machinery often experience severe hearing loss. Eye problems and breathing disabilities from the chlorine bleach used to clean the machines are common. Workers who become injured on the job are forced to return to work before they are healed. According to those interviewed by GAP, most workers are afraid to report injuries for fear of losing their jobs:
*"Management was aggressive in mak-ing sure that the injured workers returned to the job as soon as possible. The employee was encouraged to return to the job, and if necessary the company would send transportation to the person's home to bring them back to work."
*"All of the workers are afraid to be injured because they know they will be fired."
*"Workers come to work injured or sick, or don't report an injury for fear that they will be fired." The loss of human dignity is also a pervasive occupational hazard. Management makes no provision for workers' most basic needs:
*"No matter how many hours we worked on a workday, we had only two seven-minute breaks.... The bathrooms were always occupied. Breaks were the only time we were allowed to use the bathroom. Workers sometimes had no other choice but to go to the bathroom on themselves."
*"If workers were feeling sick, they were not allowed to leave the line. They would get sick on the line and vomit on the floor."
*"A pregnant Hispanic worker slipped on ice and fell to the floor. She began to hemorrhage but the company refused to have her taken to the hospital or to the company doctor. She returned to work the next day and was still hemorrhaging. She was told to punch out, accused of working under a false name. She was fired and management made her sign a statement that released the company from responsibility for her injuries. She lost her baby."
For their labor under these horrendous conditions, line workers earn a poverty wage-an average of $5 to $6 an hour, or $12-$15,000 a year. They work six days a week, eight to nine hours a day. Efforts to unionize the poultry workers in North Carolina are undermined by overt intimidation:
*"Workers were afraid to support unionization because the company posted a notice on a bulletin board outside the office that was on company stationery. The notice said that if you signed the petition for the union, you would be fined. The union initiative failed."
*"Management had a non-union meeting in August of last year. We were told that the union was bad, they would take the workers money and make the workers lose their jobs. Jack Campbell, who was in plant management, said the company would go to legal and illegal means to keep the union out of the plant."
A government commitment is essential to protecting the lives of workers, particularly in poultry plants where conditions are hazardous and workers do not have the benefit of union representation. As we have learned from Hamlet and other poultry plants, workers cannot rely on the goodwill of their employers.
OSHA: A Wasteland for Whistleblowers
Over the last decade, OSHA has become an auditing agency, rather than an enforcement arm of government to protect workers from abusive employers. With a severely limited capacity for on-site inspections, federal and state OSHA officials are most dependent on the shop floor reports from employees themselves to identify dangers in the work place. However, workers who lose their jobs or suffer other employment reprisals for reporting health and safety violations have negligible rights under OSHA's current statutory and enforcement structure.
For example, most workers are unaware that they must file a Whistleblower discrimination complaint within thirty days of their employer's retaliatory action. Often employees do not even discover the causal link between reporting a safety violation and their termination until after the month has lapsed. Essentially, the 30-day statute of limitations operates to prevent workers from obtaining justice.
If they file in time, workers must rely solely on the Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate and determine if discrimination has occurred. With no time restraints on how long DOL has to evaluate the complaint, whistleblower cases languish for years in a bureaucratic black hole. Research of OSHA's record from 1977 to 1988-the most recent available data-reveals how unlikely it is that OSHA will defend a whistleblower against an employer. The chart below summarizes the record during the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations.
Congress is now preparing to intro-duce an OSHA reform bill. GAP has assisted in drafting an amendment to strengthen whistleblower protection under OSHA by increasing the statute of limitation six-fold (to 180 days) and allowing workers a "private right of action" to pursue their discrimination cases against employers rather than depending solely on DOL to prosecute offenders.
Whistleblower protection becomes a paramount concern if policymakers adopt Vice-President Gore's recommen-dation from the National Perform an Review. He would essentially privatize OSHA enforcement through self-in-spection by industry, effective removing OSHA inspectors from the workplace. Gore's proposal for "reinventing government" is conspicuously silent on reinforcing whistleblower protection.
Based on our shop floor research of poultry slaughter and processing in North Carolina-immediately following the most lethal workplace catastrophe of the decade-there appears to be no justification for Gore's proposal to allow self-policing in dangerous, low-wage industries.
The Hidden Death Toll
Poultry plants today rival those of 19th Century. But the workers are not the only ones at risk-so are consumers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 2,000 people die and 4 million become sick from salmonella poisoning each year. Salmonella, a chicken fecal bacteria infects the human intestines, causing violent vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Those in greatest danger are small children, pregnant women, the elderly, and persons with immune system deficiencies. And since CDC relies only on voluntary hospital reports and does not systematically track incidence of salmonella poisoning, the true measure of those afflicted and killed by duty chicken is unknown.
The eyewitness accounts from front-line workers indicate that plant managers routinely compromise food safety to maximize volume output:
*"My second job at Townsend was in the department where chicken bones were ground-up and processed into chicken franks and bologna. . . . Almost continuously, the bones had an awful and foul odor. Sometimes they came from other plants and had been sitting for days. Often there were maggots on them. These bones were never cleaned off and so the maggots were ground up with everything else
and remained in the final product." "I personally have seen rotten meat, you can tell by the odor. This rotten meat is mixed with fresh meat and sold r .or baby food. I try to get the attention of my boss, telling him that the meat is not good. He does not listen. You can see the worms inside the meat. I don't eat chicken because of the horrible things I have seen."
*"Chickens always fell off the line because the line would be moving very fast ... We used to wash the chicken before putting it back on the line but company management stopped that practice because it took too much time. The USDA inspector would tag bad chicken if it was unfit to process. That chicken was supposed to be thrown away. The company, however, had us pull the tag off once the inspector left and run the chicken down the line for processing."
*"I only spoke to the USDA inspector on one occasion. I pulled him aside one day and told him that maggots were in the clothes hamper where our smocks were kept. I told him because there were hundreds of maggots in the ampere and I thought it was disgusting.I was told by other workers that if management saw me talking to the USDA inspector they would have fired me, so I never made any other complaints."
Food safety is often only ensured by employees who blow the whistle on corporate abuses that endanger the public. However, if private sector workers expose violations of law by their employers, there is no legal protection against retaliatory firings or other reprisals. GAP is now working with Congressional leaders to extend the law of protected speech to corporate employees who report violations of law or threats to public health.
Elaine Dodge is Director of the Food Safety Program.
Terri Shuck is Director of Development for the Government Accountability Project (GAP) Whistleblower Act or copies of the research summarized here, contact GAP at 810 First Street NE, Washington DC 20002, 202/408-0034.
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