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Pain, shame, silence

Federal investigation of poultry plants is needed

Each day, thousands of workers in the Carolinas clean, bone and trim an armada of turkeys and chickens. They do risky, repetitive jobs to put popular specialty cuts on the nation's tables. Their work returns millions in profits to the companies that employ them.

You'd think that would mean something, but it doesn't. These workers are no more than disposable assets. A 22-month Observer investigation into poultry processing in the Carolinas found that weak regulations and slack enforcement 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.

That shameful record needs to change.

Today the last of six installments outlines the critical failure of state and federal safety enforcement agencies to do their jobs.

• Workplace safety inspections at poultry plans have dropped to their lowest point in 15 years.

• Fines for serious violations -- including conditions that could cause deaths and disabling injuries -- are usually cut by more than half.

• It has been a decade since OSHA fined a poultry processor for hazards likely to cause carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and other musculoskeletal disorders common to the industry.

• The federal government has made it easier for companies to hide those MSDs by lifting a record-keeping requirement to identify them on safety logs.

The bottom line? The government does as little as possible to protect poultry workers from mangled hands, severed digits or crippling musculoskeletal disorders. It leaves it to poultry plants to police themselves, and gets involved only when companies report problems.

Workers who have no way to speak out pay the price in pain and in injuries that leave them disfigured and unable to do simple tasks.

Government shouldn't be expected to do everything. But it can and should protect workers from abuse, injury or death on the job.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., as a former U.S. labor secretary, is an expert and an advocate for workplace safety issues. As labor secretary she even pushed successfully for federal ergonomic standards to protect workers from MSDs.

Yet she has been silent on the indecent treatment poultry workers suffer, silent on the government's failure to enforce its own rules and silent on the Bush administration's decision to toss out federal ergonomic standards.

Why? Her voice could make a difference. She ought to start by asking for the following steps:

• A federal investigation into hiring practices, working conditions and injury reports in poultry processors.

• Federal ergonomic standards and specific reporting rules for MSDs state and federal OSHA agencies can use to police high-risk industries.

• Immigration reforms that give immigrant workers the basic protection decency demands.

Sen. Dole should speak out

Call Sen Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and ask her to push for a federal investigation into poultry processing. Contact her at 202-224-6342 or go to dole.senate.gov and click on contact Sen. Dole.

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