N.C. backs off poultry scrutiny

09/30/2008 3:26 PM

03/23/2009 2:28 PM

North Carolina bolstered its workplace safety program after a chicken plant fire killed 25 workers in Hamlet in 1991. But the state's focus on keeping poultry workers safe has waned since the mid-1990s, an Observer investigation has found.

THE FINDINGS

  The number of poultry plant inspections in North Carolina fell from 25 in 1997 to nine in 2006. The number of poultry workers, meanwhile, has changed little. Some large poultry plants haven't been inspected in more than five years.

 The number of comprehensive inspections at poultry plants -- in which regulators inspect wall to wall -- dropped from 10 in 1997 to two in 2006.

 Fines for serious violations by poultry plants average about $500 in North Carolina -- less than half the national average.

 Only 1 of every 1,800 violations found at N.C. manufacturing plants during the past decade has been deemed "willful," a designation that can result in steep financial penalties and hurt a company's reputation. Nationally, about 1 of every 300 citations against manufacturers is labeled willful.

WHAT THE STATE SAYS

Officials with N.C. OSHA note that the agency conducts more inspections than most states, and that the rate of reported workplace injuries has declined. "We are, as a program, in great shape," said division director Allen McNeely. "People look to us actually from other states for how we did it and why we did it that way."

WHAT SAFETY ADVOCATES SAY

Safety advocates contend that a pro-business approach increasingly endangers workers.

While resources for enforcement have remained flat in recent years, the state has sharply increased money for voluntary compliance programs -- in which companies request safety evaluations with the understanding that they won't be fined.

"We're really kind of selling out our population to bring in business and industry," said Amy Kaufman, who formerly headed the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health Project.

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