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Rules? What rules?

Gaping holes in regulatory safety net mean pain for workers

After a conveyer broke her arm and ripped off the tip of a finger, a worker in a poultry plant in Greenville, S.C., was back on the job the next morning. Cornelia Vicente said the plant nurse told her at the hospital she had no choice.

Think that sounds right? Neither do we. Ms. Vicente, a former line worker for House of Raeford, is one of hundreds of poultry workers interviewed by the Observer during a 22-month investigation. It found weak safety rules and slack government oversight have made it easy for a dangerous industry to exploit illegal workers and underreport injuries.

You can read Ms. Vicente's story today, the fifth in a six-part Observer series. It shows how, in many cases, hurt workers (often illegal immigrants such as Ms. Vicente) endured inhumane treatment or wound up with permanent injuries because gaping holes in the regulatory safety net lets companies such as House of Raeford get around rules about reporting accidents.

• The Observer found the House of Raeford plant where Ms. Vicente worked kept a five-year safety streak going by sidestepping regulations and rushing hurt employees back to work.

• Reporters found that many workers reporting hand pain from repetitive motion injuries at House of Raeford were given painkillers and sent back to work, not sent to a doctor.

How could such things happen? Rules and oversight by federal and state Occupational Safety and Health agencies are toothless when it comes to such medical practices.

For one thing, companies aren't required to provide suitably-trained on-site medical staff, even in poultry processing plants, where the risk of dismemberment and musculoskeletal disorders is high.

Meanwhile, there's financial incentive not to do the right thing when employees are injured. A company saves money when it doesn't have to compensate workers for lost time or medical care. Sending injured employees back to work also keeps their names off a plant's injury logs and helps avoid scrutiny from safety regulators.

Those loopholes need to be closed -- now. Reform should begin with a federal investigation that focuses on hiring practices, working conditions and injury reporting by poultry processors in the Carolinas. That inquiry should include a specific, in-depth look at government oversight and worker safety rules for poultry plants. Neither is working.

Celia Lopez lifted and weighed hundreds of turkey breasts each day at a House of Raeford plant near Fayetteville. When her hands began to throb, a company first-aid attendant gave her pain relievers and sent her back to work. When she finally saw a doctor on her own and had surgery for carpal tunnel injury, it may have been too late: The damage could have been avoided, but now it may be permanent.

That's an outrage. Nobody should have to pay that price.

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