Save Money in this Sunday's paper

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.

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.

CONTACT US
If you have stories or tips you want to share, please contact Observer reporters:
Ames Alexander – 704-358-5060; E-mail
Kerry Hall – 704-358-5085; E-mail
Franco Ordoñez – 704-358-6180; E-mail (Ordoñez speaks Spanish.)
Peter St. Onge – 704-358-5029; E-mail