The Charlotte Observer Investigates the Poultry Business

[Jordan Barab may have abandoned his outstanding blog, Confined Spaces, to take a position on Rep George Miller’s House Committee on Education and Labor but he hasn’t used that as an excuse to abandon his faithful readers. Once a month or so he sends out an email to his Confined Spaces Google Group on what the committee is doing or the media is reporting. This week he sent out 3 emails linking to a groundbreaking series in the Charlotte Observer on the way workers in the poultry industry in the South – many of them illegals – are being mistreated. Below are the emails, complete with links to the entire series. I urge you to read them. – MA]

1) Attached are excerpts and links to the first of an amazing six part Charlotte Observer series on health and safety hazards in the poultry industry

The cover page is here: http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/ (Note: you may have to disable your popup protector.

Individual articles:

The cruelest cuts

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487187.html

 

In an industry rife with danger, House of Raeford Farms depicts itself as a safe place to work. Company records suggest relatively few workers are injured each year as they kill, cut and package millions of chickens and turkeys.

But an Observer investigation shows the N.C. poultry giant has masked the extent of injuries behind its plant walls.

The company has compiled misleading injury reports and has defied regulators as it satisfies a growing appetite for America’s most popular meat. And employees say the company has ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job.

An epidemic of pain

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487186.html

Like black lung in the coal industry and brown lung in textiles, the hands of the poultry industry suffer a long-neglected threat. Two decades ago, musculoskeletal disorders at poultry and meatpacking plants prompted a public outcry. Legislators and government officials vowed change.

Now, an Observer investigation shows, the hands of poultry workers are more threatened than ever.

He says his agency is at fault

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487188.html

Bob Whitmore is doing what few career government employees dare — publicly criticizing his own agency.

Whitmore, an expert in record-keeping requirements for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said OSHA is allowing employers to vastly underreport the number of injuries and illnesses their workers suffer.

The true rate for some industries — including poultry processors — is likely two to three times higher than government numbers suggest, he said.

The perils of processing

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487189.html

About 100 U.S. poultry workers have died on the job during the past decade, and more than 300,000 have been injured. The industry’s death and injury rates are higher than those for manufacturing as a whole. For many workers — including those who suffer amputations, chemical burns and debilitating hand or wrist ailments — on-the-job injuries have left a lasting mark. Poultry plants are typically divided into two functions. At one end, birds are slaughtered, scalded and plucked. At the other end, tightly clustered workers cut and package meat.

From the Editor: Poultry series exposes a new, silent subclass

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487184.html

Today we ask you to join us for a six-day series on the plight of Carolinas workers who put America’s most popular meat on the table.

These workers — about 28,000 of them in the Carolinas — process chicken and turkey in all its forms. Whole birds, fillets, nuggets, slices, cubes, sausage and even hot dogs.

It may surprise you to learn that most of the workers speak Spanish. Many of them entered the country illegally.

Should that matter as you consider the working conditions you will read about?

I say yes, but maybe not for the most obvious reason.

It should matter because the neglect of these workers exposes an ugly dimension to a new subclass in our society. A disturbing subclass of compliant workers with few, if any, rights.

Editorial: Spoiled meat

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/487185.html

What happened to Karina Zorita just isn’t decent. Yet it’s commonplace in pain factories such as the ones in the Carolinas where thousands of poultry workers clean and debone America’s best-selling meat.

Ms. Zorita, 32, is a former line worker for House of Raeford, a poultry processor in Eastern North Carolina. Her painful, crippled hands don’t show up on any government injury report. But an Observer investigation has documented her plight — and the injuries suffered by other workers like her.

The shameful truth? Feeble rules and lax oversight have made it easy for a dangerous industry to exploit illegal workers, underreport injuries and manipulate a regulatory system that essentially lets companies police themselves.

The Observer’s report begins today, and continues for six days. It focuses heavily on Ms. Zorita’s former employer

House of Raeford responds

Excerpts from a Jan. 14 letter to the Observer

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/484515.html

2) On September 3, 1991, a fire broke out at the Imperial Poultry Processing plant in Hamlet, NC. Workers tried to escape, but managers had locked the fire doors to prevent workers from stealing chicken nuggets 25 worker died. This powerful video is part of the Charlotte Observer’s series on the poultry processing industry which continues today: http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/poultry_video2/

Misery on the line

Illegal immigrants say it’s easy to get a job at House of Raeford Farms.

Of 52 current and former Latino workers at House of Raeford who spoke to the Observer about their legal status, 42 said they were in the country illegally.

Company officials say they hire mostly Latino workers but don’t knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

But five current and former House of Raeford supervisors and human resource administrators, including two who were involved in hiring, said some of the company’s managers know they employ undocumented workers.

“If immigration came and looked at our files, they’d take half the plant,” said Caitlyn Davis, a former Greenville, S.C., plant human resources employee.

Former Greenville supervisors said the plant prefers undocumented workers because they are less likely to question working conditions for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.

.

A boss’s view: Keep them working

The production lines rarely stopped.

An endless stream of raw chickens — thousands an hour — had to be sliced and cut into pieces for family dinner tables.

It was Enrique Pagan’s job to keep his part of the line running.

He paced and often screamed at Mexicans and Guatemalans cutting chicken thighs. He demanded they move faster and scolded them when they left too much meat on the bone.

Pagan said most of his 90 workers in 2002 suffered hand and wrist pains. But he had production goals to meet. And he knew that workers wouldn’t complain because many were in the country illegally.

Editorial: Throwaway workers

You may not like the fact illegal immigrants break the law to come to this country for jobs. Yet they do come, and Americans want the low-priced products and services their cheap labor provides. But we should be appalled by what’s happening to thousands of immigrant workers who do dangerous, dirty work in pain factories in the Carolinas.

They are being exploited, abused, then thrown away when they are injured or when they speak up. Companies can get away with it, in part, because politicians in Washington don’t have the conscience or will to fix failed immigration policies.

3) Yet another stomach churning read from today’s Charlotte Observer:

Workers say they’re denied proper medical care

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/490858.html

Mike Flowers is a powerful gatekeeper. He often decides whether to send poultry workers to a doctor when they get hurt on the job or complain of chronic pain.

“I think we do a pretty good job of taking care of these folks,” said Flowers, who treats workers at the House of Raeford Farms plant in West Columbia, S.C.

Ernestina Ruiz thinks otherwise.

In 2006, after months of de-boning thousands of chicken breasts each day, her hands and wrists began to hurt. She complained to Flowers at least three times, she said, but each time he gave her pain relievers or a bandage and sent her back to work.

” `You’re going to be fine,’ ” she recalled him saying.

A large lump grew on her left wrist. The pain got so bad, she said, she went to a private doctor and had surgery.

Day after day, poultry workers are cut by knives, burned by chemicals or hurt by repetitive work, according to dozens of injury logs compiled by plants across the South.

Because many workers are illegal immigrants and can’t afford private care, their health rests largely with company medical workers.

Those in-house attendants are supposed to help workers heal. Instead, some have prevented workers from receiving medical care that would cost the company money, an Observer investigation has found. And in some instances, the treatments they provide can do more harm than good.

Judge criticized Tyson guidelines

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/490859.html

A judge sharply criticized policies at one large poultry company that encouraged nurses to delay medical treatment for some injured workers.

Tyson Foods, in a manual once issued to company nurses, provided the following guidance on how to handle workers with symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful hand ailment: Treat them in-house and “if not improving after 4 weeks, refer to a physician.”

Administrative Law Judge Murphy Miller concluded in 2002 the policy left Georgia worker Carolyn Johnson with permanent injuries.

“An employer that … requires four weeks of in-house treatment before a physician referral charts a collision course with medical disaster,” the judge wrote. “The employee’s permanent nerve damage is the foreseeable result.”

A worker’s grueling day

http://www.charlotte.com/poultry/story/490857.html

Celia Lopez felt lucky when she was hired at the House of Raeford Farms turkey plant in Raeford. But after six years, the 44-year-old mother of three said she feared the “hands that take care of my family” are ruined. Last February, Fayetteville Dr. Stanley Gilbert performed carpal tunnel surgery on her left hand. In June, he performed surgery on her right hand. At the Observer’s request, Lopez recounted a typical day:

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