Large OSHA Fine for Poultry Processor Highlights Flaw in USDA Proposal to Revise Inspection System

by Matt Shudtz

Just days before The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy published her eye-opening story of chemical showers in chicken processing plants and the untimely death of a federal food safety inspector, OSHA announced fines totaling $58,775 in a case involving a worker fatality at another chicken processing plant – this one in Canton, Georgia. According to OSHA's press release, the worker "became caught in an unguarded hopper while attempting to remove a piece of cardboard." 

The agency does not typically release the full details of an investigation until it is "closed" by virtue of penalties being paid, a settlement, or a court decision, so we'll only be able to glean the basics of this tragic incident from the public inspection file and press release, for now. But the basics tell a troubling story. OSHA cited Pilgrim's Pride, which boasts billions of dollars in chicken sales annually and employs about 38,000 workers, for violating rules that embody some of the most basic safety principles, like the need to have controls in place to prevent life-threatening machinery from starting up while a worker is servicing it. What's worse, the citation for failing to have procedures in place to control "potentially hazardous energy" has been classified as a "repeat" violation because the plant was cited for similar violations just two years ago.

And yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed to give this plant and others like it significantly more leeway to lower their production costs at the expense of providing safe workplaces. USDA's proposed revisions to poultry slaughter inspections will allow plants to speed up their processing lines in a way that poses serious threats to workers' health and safety. Musculoskeletal problems are already rampant in these factories as a result of repetitive motion and awkward positions. But speeding up the lines, which will decrease processing costs by about three pennies per chicken (a cumulative profit totaling millions of dollars per year), is the incentive that USDA is giving to Pilgrim's Pride and other processors to get them to make the capital investments necessary to adopt a new inspection system. That extra profit will be earned on the backs (and shoulders and wrists) of the workers who will have to cope with dizzying new line speeds.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform