Cruelest Cuts

Needed: A watchdog

Marvin Johnson is not the only businessman to try and get his way on worker safety. The trouble is, when special interests go too far, government oversight becomes a joke. Workers pay the price in pain.

That's happening in Mr. Johnson's poultry processing plants in the Carolinas, and likely elsewhere. It's shameful. It won't change until state and federal lawmakers stand up for workers by passing strong, specific worker safety rules and approving funding to enforce them effectively.

An 18-month Observer investigation uncovered a record of pain, injury and poor treatment of workers in Mr. Johnson's House of Raeford factories in the Carolinas. Slack oversight and slack rules 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.

Among the findings:

 House of Raeford broke state law by failing to record injuries on government safety logs.

 At four of the company's largest Carolinas plants, first-aid attendants and supervisors have dismissed workers' requests for a doctor's care.

 The company's Greenville, S.C., plant kept a five-year safety streak alive by returning employees to the factory hours after surgery.

How can those things happen? Nobody's watching. The government is inspecting poultry plants less because it says fewer injuries are being reported. Yet it rarely checks to see whether reports are accurate.

Another factor: The voices of businessmen such as Mr. Johnson carry more weight with enforcers and elected officials than the voices of injured workers.

Today, an Observer profile of Mr. Johnson shows he has built his poultry empire while repeatedly defying government regulators and backing political candidates who are sympathetic to the meat industry.

His success has helped tilt the policies of federal and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration agencies toward business and industry and away from worker protection.

The record of Mr. Johnson's own company shows why that's wrong. Specifically, the Observer's investigation found it ignored and fired workers who complained about injuries. It has been cited for at least 130 serious workplace violations since 2000 -- among the most of any poultry company.

Behind those statistics are workers such as Claudette Outerbridge of Raeford, who pulled out turkey guts and trimmed parts, and was brushed off and given a cream when she reported intense hand pain. That's disgraceful.

Taxpayers aren't paying for oversight that plays lapdog to business, we're paying for oversight that protects workers. Changes ought to start with these steps by lawmakers:

 Launching a federal investigation to look into hiring practices, working conditions and injury reporting in poultry processors.

 Reinstating critical federal ergonomic safety standards thrown out by the Bush Administration in 2001.

 Increasing federal funding to help states such as North and South Carolina enforce rules in dangerous industries.