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SPLC files federal safety complaints against poultry plant that fired whistleblowers

A poultry processing company in Guntersville, Alabama, ignored worker complaints about dangerous and unsanitary working conditions, ultimately firing two whistleblowers, according to SPLC complaints filed with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The two complaints call for an OSHA investigation into how Farm Fresh Foods, LLC forced sanitation workers to work at dangerously fast speeds – even threatening workers with suspension or disciplinary points as they raced against one another to carry and unpack 80-pound crates of chicken to the sound of their supervisors’ jeers. The complaints were filed last week on behalf of the two fired workers, who had been labeled “troublemakers” for daring to voice their concerns.

“It’s clear from the treatment of these workers that Farm Fresh Foods has little regard for its employees,” said Naomi Tsu, SPLC deputy legal director. “Farm Fresh needs to listen to workers rather than retaliating against them. We’ve seen this happen again and again in the poultry industry – these companies must stop putting their bottom line before workers’ health and rights.”

Workers risked slip-and-fall injuries as they raced to grab crates of raw chicken because supervisors would discipline empty-handed workers even when there were no more crates to carry, according to the complaints. In June, after workers complained about the safety issues created by this race to work, Farm Fresh Foods suspended about 16 workers, including the two whistleblowers. When the two workers later tried to pick up their paychecks, they were told they had been fired. The company initially refused to pay their final wages, but has since issued their checks.

The whistleblowers worked in Farm Fresh’s third-shift sanitation crew, cleaning the processing plant at night. At the end of their shift, supervisors required them to unload raw chicken from crates onto the processing line for the next shift. They did not, however, allow the workers to wash their hands or change out of the soiled clothes and gloves they wore to clean the plant. Workers raised concerns about contaminating the chicken, but they were routinely ignored.

The complaints also describes how workers were denied bathroom breaks outside of their sole 30-minute break per eight-hour shift – an epidemic problem in the poultry industry that leads some workers to wear diapers. Even when workers at Farm Fresh Foods were given permission to use the bathroom, a supervisor would often stand outside the restroom and time their breaks.

Farm Fresh Foods also forced its sanitation crew to sweep several inches of standing water off processing room floors at a dangerously fast pace with nothing more than a squeegee. They frequently endured waste water splashing into their eyes and mouths.

The SPLC’s complaints urge OSHA to stop the plant’s practice of retaliating against employees as well as its dangerous work routines. It calls for OSHA to inspect the Guntersville plant and conduct confidential interviews with employees. The complaints come as OSHA is conducting a poultry industry inspection and enforcement program in the Southeast.

The SPLC report, Unsafe at these Speeds, found that dangerous conditions and retaliatory behavior are common in Alabama poultry plants. The report is based on more than 300 interviews with poultry workers. Meat and poultry workers face higher illness and injury rates than in the manufacturing industry at large.