Cruelest Cuts

Judge criticized Tyson guidelines

A judge sharply criticized policies at one large poultry company that encouraged nurses to delay medical treatment for some injured workers.

Tyson Foods, in a manual once issued to company nurses, provided the following guidance on how to handle workers with symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful hand ailment: Treat them in-house and "if not improving after 4 weeks, refer to a physician."

Administrative Law Judge Murphy Miller concluded in 2002 the policy left Georgia worker Carolyn Johnson with permanent injuries.

"An employer that ... requires four weeks of in-house treatment before a physician referral charts a collision course with medical disaster," the judge wrote. "The employee's permanent nerve damage is the foreseeable result."

Tyson said its guidelines were based on recommendations from medical providers. But the company has since modified them "to ensure everyone clearly understands workers have the option of immediately being referred to a physician at their request," a company spokesman wrote in an e-mail to the Observer.

At Tyson's Buena Vista, Ga., plant, Johnson pulled thousands of chicken breasts from their carcasses each day.

In 2000, she told supervisors she was suffering from hand pains, according to workers' compensation documents. She later visited company nurses, who gave her 2,400 milligrams of ibuprofen a day -- twice what manufacturers recommend for those without prescriptions. Experts warn that too much ibuprofen can lead to ulcers, liver damage and even death.

The company didn't send Johnson to a doctor until three months after she first complained to supervisors, records show. By that time, tests found she had severe carpal tunnel.

Tyson said it could not discuss the details of Johnson's case. But a spokesman wrote that company officials "work diligently" to make sure injured workers receive proper medical treatment.