American poultry production is an extremely hazardous industry, especially in terms of debilitating injuries. Lacerations and amputated fingers are common, as are nerve damage, stress fractures, and other ergonomic conditions. In 2018, approximately 8,700 poultry workers across the agricultural and manufacturing sectors sustained injuries serious enough to require time away from work. This does not account, of course, for the poultry workers who never received the time and care they needed to heal from unreported injuries, or for the workers who are not technically part of the poultry industry, but nevertheless perform dangerous work in and around poultry plants that allow them to continue functioning.
The Stoddard Firm is committed to helping poultry plant victims and their families exercise their rights and take back the ill-gotten profits their employers acquired by endangering them in the first place.
The USDA Is Allowing Poultry Plants to Put Workers in Even Greater Danger than Before
In spite of the poultry industry’s already troubling safety record, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently begun granting poultry plants permission to increase production speeds, further increasing the risks for workers. A joint investigation by ProPublica and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirms that plants do not need to demonstrate any level of safety proficiency or OSHA compliance to be excused from previous industry speed limits. In fact, many of the plants that have received line speed wavers have had multiple recent and serious accidents.
The USDA has openly stated that worker safety is not a consideration in its decisions, arguing that safety is OSHA’s sole jurisdiction, but OSHA does not have the authority to stop the speed increases. In the months to come, as more working hours pass with more employees struggling to keep up with faster machines and higher quotas, there is no doubt there will be more injuries and more deaths, and litigation may be the only avenue left to hold plant owners accountable.
Pilgrim’s Pride Has A Decades Long Record: Maimed Workers At Its Georgia Based Plants
Owned by a multinational parent company headquartered in Brazil, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation controls poultry plants all over the Americas and is the second largest manufacturing employer in the Georgia, with a workforce of nearly 8,000 people across the state.
In 2002, one labor union filed a federal complaint against Pilgrim’s Pride for subjecting employees to physically damaging working conditions, and the company’s employees continue to struggle to keep plants safe today, with little improvement to show in the intervening years. As recently as April of 2019, Pilgrim’s Pride workers in Minnesota rallied to demand their plant stop subjecting them to unnecessary hazards, excessive working speeds, and discriminatory practices they say have only gotten worse over the past decade.
This recent deterioration of plant conditions makes sense, considering the cuts that have been made to OSHA in that time, which have most certainly been felt on the production floor level.
Back in September of 2015, OSHA cited one Pilgrim’s Pride plant in West Virginia for three separate accidents in a 60-day period. Two of those accidents involved workers getting caught in the machinery, resulting in a broken arm and three lost fingers. The third accident was a fall caused by a machine with inadequate step access. OSHA ultimately fined the plant $46,000 for a combination of all three incidents — hardly a significant sum for a multinational corporation, but a symbolic act at least. And of course, that fine did nothing to help the injured worker.
Similarly, a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Florida received 22 citations in a single inspection the following year, 14 of them serious, resulting in $78,175 in fines. The infractions included refusing employees timely medical referrals and not following necessary procedures to prevent machines from starting up during cleaning.
In spite of OSHA already fighting an uphill battle against rampant worker safety violations as of 2016, its budget and authority have been repeatedly slashed since that time, leading Pilgrim’s Pride, the poultry industry in general, and many others, to their present condition. Inspections and citations have plummeted, but there is no reason whatsoever to assume that actual injuries have done the same.
One Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Alabama reported four accidents between 2016 and 2018, the second and third of which did not prompt any response from the newly under-funded and under-staffed OSHA, in spite of one employee being hospitalized with a broken hip and another with an amputated thumb. It was only the larger-scale fourth accident, an ammonia leak that started a fire, which finally led OSHA to perform a new inspection and impose a miniscule $13,000 fine.
How many other workers were harmed in that plant while OSHA wasn’t watching, we may never know, but none of these life-altering injuries prevented the plant from receiving a USDA waiver to increase its line speeds. Almost immediately upon receiving its waiver, the plant saw another accident, this one fatal.
Fieldale Farms Has Repeatedly Under Represented Worker Deaths and Injuries
Although globally much smaller, Fieldale Farms is another major Georgia poultry plant owner, employing the state’s fifth largest manufacturing workforce and making Gainesville the self-proclaimed “poultry capital of the world.”
Being smaller and more local has apparently not given Fieldale Farms any more concern for human life than its multinational rival. Shortly before the cuts to its funding, OSHA caught Fieldale Farms in multiple serious lies about accidents in its plants.
In 2014, a worker lost his leg to an ice crusher in a Fieldale Farms plant. The crusher consisted of a set of spinning blades under the floor, covered by a broken grating and often obscured by a layer of ice buildup. The plant manager tried to argue that the employee’s leg was thin enough that it had slipped between the normal bars of the grating. However, OSHA’s subsequent investigation found not only that this was impossible, but that the plant had quickly fixed the grating after the accident and covered up the repair record. Management had previously ignored multiple employee requests to have the grating fixed before such a tragedy could occur.
A year later, a Fieldale Farms handyman was killed while attempting to repair a light that had not been switched off for service. Due to worn out insulation on the light’s wiring, he was fatally electrocuted on contact. In spite of OSHA’s photographic evidence of the worn insulation, and a coroner’s report confirming electrocution as the handyman’s cause of death, the Fieldale Farms president continued to insist to the press that the man had died of a heart attack, and that there was nothing wrong with the fixture. The handyman’s wife reported that she had hoped to sue the company, but that she had been unable to find any poultry plant injury lawyers in Georgia willing to take her case, because no witnesses would testify.
The injury attorneys at the Stoddard Firm are always disheartened to hear of people who’ve been maimed or lost loved ones to corporate greed and indifference, and then been refused the justice they deserve because of the fear of going up against Georgia poultry plant lawyers and other powerful corporate legal departments in court. Holding even the richest, most influential perpetrators accountable for the harm they cause is our passion and our specialty, and we encourage anyone who finds themselves in this position to contact us immediately.
There may be more of these kinds of incidents at Fieldale Farms soon. Most of its plants are already taking advantage of USDA line speed wavers, and just like at Pilgrim’s Pride, there have already been serious accidents since the speed increase. One employee lost multiple fingers while trying to clear a jam in a machine, and another fell into a machine while cleaning it and died of a broken neck.
The Poultry Industry Works Hard to Keep Workers Powerless and Profits High
Speeding up production at the cost of human lives and bodies is not the only controversy currently surrounding the poultry industry. In September of 2019, Pilgrim’s Pride and Fieldale Farms were both named as defendants in what is expected to become a class action lawsuit, along with Peco, Tyson, and several other producers who collectively control over 90% of the American chicken supply. The suit alleges that executives from the named companies have been meeting off the books for as long as a decade and conspiring to keep employee wages low, retaliating against those in the industry who offer competitive pay raises.
Some of the same defendants, including Pilgrim’s Pride, are also being sued by their competitors and investigated by the Department of Justice for alleged price-fixing schemes. If the accusations are true — and they do form a very consistent picture — poultry producers have been cutting corners on all sides, cheating the public as well as their own workers in order to pad their profits. Forcing employees to work at ever more dangerous speeds is just the logical extension of this greed-driven absence of ethics.
Poultry Plant Employees Are Not the Only People in Danger
The tendrils of the poultry industry’s safety problems stretch far beyond the production floor, and beyond the employer-employee relationship.
Most obvious, of course, are the public health concerns that accompany mishandled poultry. Food safety advocacy groups have been objecting to the line speed waivers on the grounds of increased salmonella risks, which are certainly another danger plant owners have a duty to manage, but probably won’t.
Then, on the opposite end of the public visibility spectrum, there are the even more hazardous working conditions that sanitation contractors face while cleaning poultry plants each night. Although these workers are technically not poultry employees, and their safety is theoretically the responsibility of their individual contracting companies, they clean dangerous poultry plant machinery on plant-imposed time limits that receive none of the scrutiny of daytime work speed policies. These small sanitation companies receive much less oversight and regulation than the poultry industry itself, so by contracting with them, many plants are able to exploit the most desperate and vulnerable labor available while avoiding responsibility for their treatment.
Plant Owners Are Not the Only Negligent Parties
Just as poultry plant hazards can affect non-employees, negligence outside of the plant management structure can also contribute to these hazards. Producers of poultry plant equipment have a responsibility to make sure their machines are as safe for use as possible. Unfortunately, because of poultry plants past safety record, and because the plants themselves are often the culprits when any accountability is enforced, equipment designers aren’t well-motivated to consider safety. When fingers are lost, when necks are broken, when machines start up unexpectedly, when OSHA declares an accident to be the result of missing steps or guards on machinery, it’s always worth questioning whether the problem is with the plant’s usage and maintenance, or with the design of the machines themselves.
The Stoddard Firm Holds Plants and Manufacturers Accountable
With or without federal and state enforcement, the duty to provide a safe property and non-defective machinery is spelled out in civil law. The Stoddard Firm uses litigation to help the victims of the poultry industry access the resources they need to rebuild their lives. We have experience explaining the legal responsibilities of plant owners and equipment manufacturers, as well as making our clients’ injuries fully understood, so that they receive the best care and compensation possible. If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one to a poultry plant accident, reach out at 678-RESULT or through our online chat function for a free consultation.