by Tom O’Connor  from Progressive Voices

All is well at the poultry plants run by the House of Raeford in the Carolinas, at least according to an investigation by the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission.  A year and a half ago, the Charlotte Observer published an exposé on the company, uncovering a series of abuses in its treatment of injured workers and failure to report job injuries.  In a recent follow-up story, the Observer reported on the results of the Commission’s audit of the company, which cleared House of Raeford of nearly all the allegations contained in the Observer’s in-depth investigation.

“The audit team’s findings indicate that, with a few minor exceptions, the House of Raeford is in compliance with the Workers’ Compensation Act. The investigation failed to uncover substantial proof of incidents as reported by the newspaper,” a staff memo concluded.

A closer reading of the results of the Commission’s investigation, however, suggests that something very wrong was happening at the House of Raeford’s poultry operations-something that cries out for action by job safety agencies in the Carolinas.   One of the major findings of the Observer’s series was that the company failed to report many injuries that occurred on the plant floor. Upon examining this issue, a Commission investigator reported in an internal staff memo that

“claim records indicate the Columbia Farms plant only filed 10 claims for 2007.  That seems to be an incredibly small number for such a large employer. Furthermore (the) listing of claimants only includes two Hispanic-sounding names, which seems peculiar given the article quotes a manager saying his workforce is about 80% to 90% Hispanic.”

Let’s get this straight.  House of Raeford operates two plants in South Carolina under the name Columbia Farms, employing some 1,800 workers altogether, the great majority of whom were, until recently, Hispanic immigrants.  The Commission’s investigation found that only 10 job injuries in one year were reported in an industry with one of the highest injury rates-a figure which its own staff calls

“incredible”–and only a couple of them involved Hispanics. Over a ten-year period, the company’s two plants reported only 196 injuries “few of whose claimants names are Hispanic.”

So, either: 1) the House of Raeford plants are incredibly safe places to work relative to other poultry plants and the Hispanic workers at these plants have been particularly successful in avoiding job injuries; or 2) there is something very fishy about the injury numbers the company is reporting.

I don’t know, but I find the second explanation to be a whole lot more believable.

(A House of Raeford plant manager opined to the Observer that the reason for the lack of injury reports involving Hispanic immigrants was that “Hispanics are very good with their hands and working with a knife… it’s more like a natural movement for them.”)  One of the revelations in the Observer’s series was that the company kept its reported injury numbers down by returning injured workers straight from the doctor’s office to the plant, thereby avoiding a recordable “lost-time injury.” The Workers’ Comp Commission staff dutifully interviewed the company’s medical providers and were told that this was standard practice and nothing to get worked up about.

Standard? Yes.  Ethical? Doubtful.

The treatment of injured workers, particularly those in harsh, low-wage jobs like poultry processing is nothing short of shameful, across the board. Workers who are injured on the job, even with fairly serious conditions, are hauled back to work on the same day and put on “light-duty,” sometimes told to simply stay put in a chair all day.  Anything to avoid a lost-time injury. It may well be true that House of Raeford is no worse than many other employers in this regard, but that doesn’t make it right. Worker advocates around the country also report a growing pattern of worker intimidation to suppress reports of injuries. Through not-so-subtle messages, employers can make it known to workers that anyone who reports an injury may be first in line for the pink slip when layoffs come or may suddenly find that they are switched over to the night shift.

Federal OSHA has become aware of these problems with underreporting of injuries and worker intimidation to suppress reports of injury and it is taking steps to address them through a new program designed to identify employers who cheat on these reports and proposed legislation to outlaw such intimidation.  North and South Carolina’s safety agencies would do well to follow suit. The low-wage poultry workers of our states at least deserve recognition of the high cost they pay to put food on our table.

Tom O’Connor is the Executive Director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health