Today's Charlotte Observer includes the first of a potentially devastating six-part series on poultry-plant safety.
The first part focuses on House of Raeford, one of the ten largest poultry producers in the country. It's based in Hoke County, half an hour south of Fayetteville and operates plants in North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana. It supplies deli turkey and chicken products to companies such as Blimpie, Golden Corral and Food Lion. It also counts several school systems among its customers--including my hometown system, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It claims to have one of the best safety records in the industry--but the Observer amply demonstrates that this record is a mirage.
Among the details in the main story:
* One plant near Columbia claimed to have had no musculoskeletal disorders (carpal tunnel, tendinitis, etc.) from July 2003 to April 2007--a figure that experts say is inconceivable since these injuries are very common in poultry plants. Interviews seem to confirm this--12 workers suffered pain commonly associated with MSDs, and two even had surgery for carpal tunnel at company expense. Most of the others weren't sent to doctors or given sick leave.
* Another plant in Greenville claims to have five years without lost-time injuries--but pulled this off by rushing people back to work after surgery.
* Line workers at two plants visited the first-aid station almost daily because of severe pain in her hand, but attendants refused to let them go to the doctor. They were eventually diagnosed with carpal tunnel and settled workers' comp claims out of court.
* An HR supervisor made numerous requests to let workers get medical attention, but was told that if they kept coming to the office they'd have to be fired.
* The company has a history of underreporting injuries. In 1997, regulators took a peek at the company's main plant in Hoke County and discovered the company had deliberately crossed off at least 35 names from injury logs. The company was able to knock its fine down to $800 from $9,000 after claiming it wasn't a willful violation. A record-keeping expert with OSHA--at risk to his own career--examined details of 41 injuries dug up by the Observer and said flat-out that the company broke the law by not reporting over half of them.
* In 1999, North Carolina state inspectors wanted to look into reports of injuries at the main plant, and one claimed to have seen several young workers who couldn't use their arms or hands properly (including one who couldn't even raise his arms above his head).
There's another story about a woman who is virtually unable to use her hands due to symptoms consistent with tendinitis, carpal tunnel and trigger finger. However, supervisors and nurses wouldn't let her see a doctor. She finally went to one on her own, and he recommended lighter duty--a request that was turned down almost out of hand. She was ultimately fired for missing too much time.
Sickening isn't the word for this. All in the name of lightening up those carnsarned regulations.
The Observer's editorial says it best:
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.
Here's where the company operates plants--if you live in one of these states, contact your congressmen and senators:
*North Carolina: Raeford, Rose Hill and Wallace
*South Carolina: Hemingway, Greenville and West Columbia