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Poultry plant fined more than $100,000 after SPLC complaint

A Wayne Farms poultry processing plant in Alabama has been fined more than $100,000 as a result of a federal complaint by the SPLC that described how workers were forced to endure unsafe and abusive conditions. 

A Wayne Farms poultry processing plant in Alabama has been fined more than $100,000 as a result of a federal complaint by the SPLC that described how workers were forced to endure unsafe and abusive conditions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued 11 citations to the plant in Jack, Alabama. It found that the plant exposed workers to dangerous machinery as well as hazards that can result in falls and musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. It also found that the plant failed to record injuries and discouraged workers from seeking treatment.

OSHA issued fines totaling $102,600.

“The actions taken by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration go far beyond a company being fined for violations at a single poultry plant,” said Michelle Lapointe, SPLC senior staff attorney. “They validate complaints poultry workers have voiced about this industry for years. This is an industry where workers are forced to work at dangerously fast speeds that cause disabling injuries and are often thrown away when they can no longer work.”

OSHA found that workers were often required to see the plant nurse before being referred to a doctor. The investigation also found that Wayne Farms failed to record worker musculoskeletal injuries, allowing the plant to hide the true level of workplace injuries. Other hazards include exposing workers to slippery floors, fall hazards and unguarded machines. OSHA’s investigation also represents the first time in 12 years that the agency has cited a poultry plant for ergonomic issues.

The SPLC filed the OSHA complaint in April on behalf of nine former or current workers. OSHA is charged with ensuring that employers protect worker safety and health across the country. The government agency, which is badly underfunded, is often the only agency that can ensure that employers maintain a safe workplace.  

“There is an urgent need for OSHA to take the next step and set up an ‘emphasis program’ solely focused on ensuring worker safety in this industry,” Lapointe said. “It’s time for these companies to step up and respect the health and well-being of their workers.”

Alabama is the nation’s third-largest producer of poultry.

Last year, the SPLC issued Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers, a report that describes how Alabama poultry workers often suffer significant injuries and illnesses as they are forced to keep up with the punishing speed of processing lines.

Based on more than 300 interviews, the report found that these workers – U.S. citizens and immigrants – are typically forced to endure dangerous conditions and silenced by threats of deportation and firing. Nearly three out of four Alabama poultry workers interviewed described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness, such as debilitating pain in their hands, respiratory problems, cuts, gnarled fingers and chemical burns.

The report also shows that workers in the poultry industry suffer extraordinary rates of repetitive motion injuries that are directly linked to the punishing work speeds. The SPLC helped block a rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would have increased evisceration line speeds from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175, despite ample evidence that work speed is a primary contributor to worker injuries.

The SPLC has urged OSHA to address the unsafe working conditions by taking steps that include protecting whistleblowers and slowing the work speeds prevalent in the poultry and meat industries. It submitted a rulemaking petition to OSHA a year ago that suggests how the agency should address musculoskeletal risks, such as those found at the Wayne Farms plant.