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Spoiled meat

Your turkey sandwich comes with a side of pain

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. Among the findings:

• House of Raeford has broken state law by failing to record injuries on government safety logs.

• The government is inspecting poultry plants less often because fewer injuries are reported. Yet it rarely checks to see whether companies such as House of Raeford are reporting accurately.

• The company's Greenville, S.C., plant kept a five-year safety streak alive by bringing injured employees back to the factory hours after surgery.

• Musculoskeletal disorders are the most common work-related ailments affecting poultry workers, yet at least one 800-worker House of Raeford plant in West Columbia, S.C., reported no MSD's over a four-year period -- which experts say is inconceivable.

The bottom line? Tens of thousands of workers in the Carolinas who use their hands to cut, sort and package hundreds of birds an hour are subjected to injury and inhumane treatment. Many of them, such as Ms. Zorita, are illegal immigrants, powerless to complain.

Policies set by state and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration agencies are tilted toward business and industry, not protecting workers.

If that makes you angry -- and it should -- here's something you can do. Contact Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. Tell her we need a federal investigation into hiring practices, working conditions and injury reporting by poultry processors.

Tell her we need specific rules state and federal OSHA agencies can use to police industries where there's a high risk of MSD disorders.

While you're at it, tell her we also need enough federal money for states such as North and South Carolina to enforce rules in a meaningful way.

Why Sen. Dole? She knows a lot about the issue. As Labor Secretary for President George H.W. Bush, she pushed for worker protections, including solid ergonomics safety standards to protect workers from MSDs. Now, those rules have been tossed aside by the current Bush Administration. Sen. Dole ought to speak out.

After three years of gutting, clipping, deboning and slicing turkeys that came her way at a rate of about 30 a minute, Karina Zorita struggles to grasp a spoon or hold a broom, brush her hair or pick up a glass of water with her swollen, gnarled hands.

That's wrong. It's time to stop the pain.

Contact Sen. Elizabeth Dole

As Labor Secretary she pushed safety standards tossed by the Bush Administration. Contact her at 202-224-6342 or go to dole.senate.gov and click on contact Sen. Dole.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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