Cornelia Vicente was packing chicken tenders at House of Raeford Farms' plant in 2003 when a conveyor belt snagged her hand, snapped her right arm and ripped off the tip of her index finger.
Maintenance workers struggled to free her, and paramedics rushed her to a hospital.
Hours after surgery, Vicente recalled, a House of Raeford nurse who had come to the hospital gave her some news: She was expected back at the plant early the next day.
The following morning, managers put Vicente to work wiping down tables and handing out supplies, she said.
When she asked for time off, she said, the nurse said no.
"So, of course, I stayed so I didn't lose my job or my salary," Vicente said.
The nurse declined to be interviewed for this series.
House of Raeford boasts that its Greenville plant has gone more than 7 million hours without a "lost-time accident," meaning no worker has been injured badly enough to miss an entire shift. But according to the company's own safety logs, Vicente was among at least nine workers at the plant who suffered amputated fingers or broken bones -- all during the time the plant claimed to have millions of safe working hours dating back to 2002.
Managers have kept the streak alive by requiring injured workers to return to the plant -- in some cases hours after medical procedures.
The Observer located four of the nine workers; three said supervisors denied them time off to recuperate. Because none missed a complete shift, the company kept its streak intact.
A plant the size of Greenville's, which employs roughly 700 workers, can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in workers' compensation costs by returning injured workers to their jobs quickly, insurance experts say. By reporting fewer lost-time accidents, a company also can reduce the likelihood of workplace safety inspections.
Caitlyn Davis, a former human resource administrator who quit in July, said injured employees often were required to work.
"People get hurt all the time," she said. "They (managers) just put them in the office to pass out supplies."
House of Raeford did not respond to specific allegations that it sometimes required injured employees to return to work.
"Employees are returned to light duty and to full duty on doctor's orders," Greenville complex manager Barry Cronic said in a written response to Observer questions.
Asked whether the company was motivated by workers' compensation costs, Cronic replied: "We followed doctor's orders on every case."
`I wanted to be at home resting'
Vicente's accident occurred months after she arrived in the United States in 2003 from her native Guatemala. She took a job in the chicken plant, she said, to support her parents and two children.Vicente said she was groggy from medication so didn't question the House of Raeford nurse when she told her to return to work the next day. She said she went back wearing a cast, her arm in a sling.
"It was very, very strong pain," she said. "My whole arm was swollen. I lost three fingernails."
After days of wiping down tables and passing out supplies, Vicente said, managers told her to sweep, a task she described as impossible given her broken arm.
"I wanted to be at home resting," she said.
Belem Villegas, an employment supervisor who left the plant in 2005, said she remembers Vicente sitting in the office looking "sad and depressed." She said Vicente occasionally asked for permission to go home.
"I'd have to say no," Villegas recalled. "(Managers) wouldn't let people go home."
The company recorded Vicente's broken arm -- but not the amputated finger -- on injury and illness logs as required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Those logs show she was placed on light duty for 64 days.
Because she didn't miss a complete work shift, her injury was not counted as a lost-time accident.
Doctors contacted by the Observer said patients who suffer fractures and amputations need initial time to heal before returning to work.
House of Raeford did not respond to questions about Vicente. In workers' compensation documents, the company said it returned her to work following her doctor's orders.
The doctor who treated her, John Millon, declined to comment.
The company fired Vicente seven months after her accident after learning through a workers' compensation case that she is an illegal immigrant. A judge ruled in 2006 that Vicente was entitled to additional workers' compensation benefits because her injury limited her ability to work.
A petite woman with long black hair that brushes her waist, Vicente hides her hand when talking with strangers.
In late September, she was unemployed. Her arm still burned, she said, and she couldn't fully move it. She said she can't do many things she once did, such as braid her hair. She avoids escalators, she said, because they remind her of the accident.
"I'm still scared of all the machines."
A tragedy in 2001
House of Raeford's safety streak was preceded by tragedy.
Longtime plant worker Jerome Sullivan had the sort of job few wanted -- operating an auger at the Greenville plant that disposed of chicken feathers.
The auger is a spiral-shaped shaft resembling a drill bit. Sullivan's job took him up on a catwalk overlooking the massive machine, which transported feathers into waiting tractor trailers.
About midway through Sullivan's shift on Dec. 15, 2001, an employee noticed what appeared to be blood coming from the auger, according to S.C. OSHA documents. Another employee climbed onto the catwalk, peered down, and saw Sullivan's body wrapped around the auger shaft.
Sullivan had died after falling into the machine, his body ripped to shreds, according to the autopsy report.
The report also showed that Sullivan had too much alcohol in his system to legally drive a car.
Inspectors found that Sullivan was not wearing a harness and that the catwalk had inadequate safety railings. They also noted that the auger was missing its protective guard.
Shortly after Sullivan's death, plant managers ordered repairs on equipment throughout the plant, former workers and supervisors told the Observer.
"Stuff started getting fixed left and right," Villegas said. "There were safety committee meetings constantly."
Safety milestones were marked by parties, where managers handed out T-shirts and sweatshirts imprinted with the plant's safety mascot, a rooster named Strut McClucker. Managers also awarded $10 and $25 gift certificates to employees in a free drawing. At a party in November 2006, managers cooked and served free hot dogs for employees on their lunch breaks.
None of the seven former supervisors who spoke with the Observer was told to lie about accidents, they said. But in the aftermath of Sullivan's death, some said, plant managers became more focused on eliminating lost-time accidents.
Villegas said her boss, human resources director Elaine Crump, told her lost-time accidents would increase workers' compensation costs.
Crump declined to comment for this article.
The plant fired Villegas in spring 2005, alleging she was "accepting money to provide employment favors to potential employees." Villegas denies those claims. She said she was forced out after speaking up for injured workers, including Vicente.
About six months after Sullivan's death, the Greenville plant had begun its safety streak, which by last summer had topped 7 million safe hours.
Former line worker Alberto Sosa still has a T-shirt he received at one of the parties. It reads: "4,000,000 hours without a lost-time accident."
"It's a lie," said Sosa, who said he suffered from wrist and hand pains when he worked on the line de-boning chickens. "It's a party for no accidents, but there are accidents."
Injuries affect costs
Few things affect a company's workers' compensation costs more than lost-time injuries. Workers' compensation, a form of insurance that most employers are required to carry, pays medical expenses for workers hurt on the job, as well as a portion of wages when they're unable to work.When companies record injuries and illnesses on their logs, they must include how many days injured employees spend away from work or on light duty. It's an honor system, and companies aren't required to share the information with regulators unless asked.
According to those logs, the Greenville plant averaged 30 injuries a year between 2002 and 2006. All were serious enough to require medical treatment beyond first aid or a transfer to light duty. But only two resulted in time away from work, records show, and those occurred before the company's safety streak began in mid-2002.
Petrona Agustin suffered the kind of injury that can drive up a company's cost for workers' compensation.
On June 11, 2003, the tip of her left little finger was severed when it got caught in a machine used to clean chicken gizzards. She said a company employee drove her to a hospital, where she had surgery.
Immediately after, Agustin was driven back to the plant to fill out paperwork so she could be moved to the day shift, she recalled. The next morning, she was back at work.
She spent more than a month passing out supplies and wiping down tables in the break room, becoming depressed and crying often at the thought of her lost finger, she told the Observer.
She said she would have gladly taken time off but said a company supervisor told her no. "I didn't want to work," said Agustin. "I was worried it would happen again."
House of Raeford wouldn't comment specifically about Agustin, citing medical confidentiality, but said her account "does not represent the full story."
"Any and all accidents are regrettable," the company said. "House of Raeford Farms, Inc. depends upon the advice of local doctors to let us know when an employee is eligible to work, and we abide by these doctors' orders."
Company logs show Agustin spent 47 days on light duty. As of September, she still worked at the plant.
She sometimes wears a prosthesis -- a fake fingertip -- colored to match her skin tone. She said she wears it to parties so she doesn't have to explain what happened.
"I was very sad. I couldn't look at my hands," she said. "I was embarrassed. I could never get my finger back."
Consultants who advise employers on ways to save money on workers' compensation costs say they sometimes recommend injured workers return to the workplace quickly. The sooner they are brought back, the consultants say, the sooner they are likely to resume their regular jobs.
A quick return can boost morale and speed recovery, they say. It also can help maintain their income, because workers receive partial pay when out on disability.
But several doctors who spoke to the Observer were skeptical of returning workers too quickly.
Dr. Blake Moore, who lives in Columbia, and has treated dozens of poultry workers, said bringing seriously injured workers back immediately "borders on reckless disregard."
Dr. Franco Godoy said it's inappropriate to bring employees back immediately following surgeries for fractures or amputations.
"The surgery has to heal first," said Godoy, who has treated roughly 100 poultry workers since joining the Emmanuel Family Clinic in Newberry, S.C., two years ago.
Neither Moore nor Godoy treated any of the workers named in this article.
In April 2004, paramedics were called to the Greenville plant after a man fainted. He'd had surgery the previous day to repair an elbow he broke in a fall at work, EMS records show.
The injured man had returned to work and was sitting in the plant's medical office reading magazines, according to the EMS report. He became sick after being given a dose of OxyContin, a powerful painkiller, which his doctor had prescribed, the report said.
Paramedics said the worker was "very upset." He and the plant's staff disagreed about whether his doctor had cleared him to return.
"Patient kept saying that he just wanted to go home," the paramedics wrote in their report after taking the man to a hospital.
Reluctant to return
Some injured workers returned to the plant voluntarily; one cited financial pressure, another said he feared being fired.Roman Tronco says he returned voluntarily after his fingertip was severed in August 2002 while cutting chicken wings with a saw.
He showed up for his next shift, company records show. He spent the day wiping tables and sweeping, his arm in a sling, he said.
Company documents show he was on light duty for 85 days.
Tronco said he was thankful for his job, which paid almost $9 an hour, a dollar more than he made at a company making bed comforters. He left the plant a year and a half after the accident.
Jimmy Cortez, a maintenance supervisor, said he returned for his next shift after slicing open the tip of his thumb with a saw in 2006.
The company didn't force him back, he said, but he feared being fired if he took a day off.
"If you get hurt, you got to work the next day," he said. "I wanted a day to recuperate, but I didn't have any other choice."
Worker's version disputed
Jaime Hernandez said a supervisor drove him back to work directly from surgery to remove a cyst from his hand. He said he was dizzy from pain medication and asked to go home.
"They told me I could not have a day to recoup," Hernandez said. "Not hours or even the rest of the day."
Hernandez, who worked under the name "Pablo," said he started at the plant in 2002, working on the de-boning line. He later moved to folding cardboard boxes, as many as 700 a day. Hernandez said he believes his cyst was caused by repetitive motion at work.
He complained to a plant nurse in 2003 after a ball formed on his right wrist. Hernandez said he visited first-aid attendants several times at the plant, only to be told he was fine and to return to work. The company later sent him to a doctor, who drained the cyst. Hernandez said the cyst returned and a doctor removed it.
A human resources employee drove Hernandez to his 10 a.m. surgery, he said, and afterward back to the plant.
"I asked, `Am I going to go home? I'm totally dizzy. I can't work,' " Hernandez recalled. "She said, `No, I have to take you to work.' "
Hernandez said he spent the rest of the shift sitting in an office chair, at times putting his head on the desk to sleep.
Asked about Hernandez, Cronic, the plant manager, said the Observer's account was inaccurate but didn't elaborate. "The company had specific reasons for its actions," he said. Because personnel records are confidential, he said, "This is all the company can say at this point."
House of Raeford fired Hernandez after he applied for workers' compensation benefits and disclosed that he is an illegal immigrant.
Cronic said that when the company learns of a worker's illegal status through a workers' compensation case, it is required by law to fire him.
House of Raeford
The privately held company, based in Raeford, is among the top 10 U.S. chicken and turkey producers.
Chairman: Marvin Johnson.
Processing plants: Four in North Carolina, three in South Carolina and one in Louisiana.
Employees: About 6,000.
Annual sales: Nearly $900 million, including some to China,
Afghanistan and other countries.
Ranking: It's among the nation's top 10 chicken and turkey producers.
Production: Slaughters and processes about 29 million pounds of chicken and turkey each week.
Restaurants including Blimpie, Golden Corral and Ryan's. Schools around the U.S., including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Stores including Food Lion and Lowes Foods. The company's deli meat is marketed under the name "Lakewood Plantation."
Distribution companies that supply food to restaurants and institutional kitchens.
Sources: Observer research, House of Raeford, Dun & Bradstreet, Watt Publishing, National Poultry and Food Distributors Association