Bill Moyers goes inside America’s poultry industry to show the reality of working conditions and to investigate how official statistics showing a drop in workplace injuries may have been the result of deceptive reporting.
BILL MOYERS: As Senator Boxer dukes it out over the health and safety of the planet, other hearings in Congress are looking at health and safety in the workplace.
GEORGE MILLER: That you will tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth…
BILL MOYERS: Just last week, the House Committee on Education and Labor heard some disturbing testimony about the reliability of the government agency charged with protecting workers on the job.
BOB WHITMORE: The mission of OSHA is to take care of American Workers. If OSHA can’t or won’t do its job, it’s up to you all to make it do the job.
BILL MOYERS: That’s Bob Whitmore, a longtime civil servant at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – or OSHA. And that’s his lawyer sitting behind him. Whitmore’s been placed on administrative leave, and he’s testifying as a private citizen despite his two decades of expertise overseeing the agency’s injury and illness records.
BOB WHITMORE: Information is inaccurate to impart to wide-scale underreporting
BILL MOYERS: As you’ll see, Whitmore has a record of challenging the credibility of reports companies are required to provide OSHA about injuries and illnesses workers suffer on the job. The Chairman of the Committee, Representative George Miller of California, had some strong remarks about OSHA’s performance.
GEORGE MILLER: OSHA refuses to recognize that the problem exists. We simply must not allow the lack of information to allow hazardous conditions to exist, putting workers lives and limbs at risk.
BILL MOYERS: Businesses, on the other hand, say the requirements are cumbersome, and have long pressured the agency for weaker standards of regulation.
The pressure’s paid off. THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Stephen Labaton reported last year that since George W. Bush became president, the agency has left worker safety largely in the hands of industry, and has issued the fewest significant standards in its history.
Then, last February, came another strong indictment. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER published an investigative series on how and why OSHA has let companies in the poultry industry get away with reporting inaccurate information about injured workers. As often happens in journalism, The OBSERVER reporters were in pursuit of one story when an unexpected lead sent them on to something bigger. What happened is the subject of this report from our colleagues at Exposé. Sylvia Chase narrates.
NARRATOR: In the fall of 2005, reporters at THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER were hard at work researching and reporting a story that gripped the nation: the avian flu.
For much of the media, the story was an end in itself. For the OBSERVER, it was only the beginning.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: The workers would tell me, if if there is avian flu here in this plant, we’re going to get it. But we really have much more serious problems right here, right now.
The problems the workers described were not about disease… they were about on-the-job injuries.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: They’re cutting thousands of thousands of times without breaks, you know, developing tendonitis problem, hand problems, wrist problems, uh, shoulder and back problems; a lot of workers having carpal tunnel and not being able to get medical care, because every time they go to the nurse to say, hey, I’m in pain, they either get written up or told that they’re not being — they’re not hurting from this job and it’s something else.
NARRATOR: The poultry industry employs about 28,000 workers in the Carolinas and about 240,000 nationwide. Its production lines move at a relentless pace, meeting the enormous demand for America’s most popular meat.
AMES ALEXANDER: Workers are making 20,000 cuts a day, highly prone to repetitive motion kinds of problems like carpal tunnel. They’re working with sharp knives, around dangerous chemicals and equipment.
KERRY HALL: We started to wonder who was looking out for the workers. They really seemed to be kind of on their own. What really is happening behind these factory walls?
MITCH WEISS: I said, “let’s do this;” we know from, from our initial research that there are poultry plants in 27 states. Why don’t we start filing Freedom of Information Act requests with all the agencies out there that deal with the poultry industry.
KERRY HALL: I ended up sending more than 50 FOIAs to agencies in 27 states requesting more than 800 inspection files.
NARRATOR: While waiting for the FOIA requests to be filled, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER’s Kerry Hall and Ames Alexander researched publicly available Bureau of Labor Statistics about safety in poultry plants. They were surprised by what they found.
AMES ALEXANDER: What we saw is that according to the official records, the injury and illness rates in the poultry industry had declined immensely over the last decade, by more than half.
NARRATOR: Especially surprising were statistics saying that incidents of certain painful and debilitating injuries like carpal tunnel and tendonitis had gone down even more. Poultry workers suffered these conditions less than 25% as often as they had ten years ago.
These muscoloskeletal disorders – or “MSD’s,” as they are known — are common in jobs where workers perform repetitive motions. But by 2006, the statistics suggested it had become harder to get an MSD working in a poultry plant… than in a toy store. Intrigued, the OBSERVER reporters began questioning sources knowledgeable about industry conditions. They included labor attorneys, experts in workplace safety, regulators and physicians.
AMES ALEXANDER: And a lot of the experts we began talking to said that these official numbers just couldn’t possibly be right, because this was a very dangerous industry.
NARRATOR: One example: Dr. Jorge Garcia, who practiced in rural South Carolina. He told the paper he had seen about 1000 poultry workers in the past seven years. He said, “I don’t know a single worker who doesn’t have some sort of pain in their hand.”
NARRATOR: Soon, data from the reporters’ freedom of information requests began to trickle in.
KERRY HALL: Here actually is some of our FOIA requests and FOIA responses. Letters from all the agencies: Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania.
NARRATOR: The documents included not only plant inspection reports but also injury logs from the occupational safety and health administration… OSHA.
KERRY HALL: OSHA regulates poultry plants based off of these self-reported injury and illness rates. If you have a high injury and illness rate you’ll get targeted possibly for an inspection. If you post a low rate, you can fall off the radar screen completely.
NARRATOR: While the documents showed some gruesome injuries, even deaths, there was nothing to contradict the statistics that said injury rates were way down.
But in comments that OSHA inspectors included in their reports, there were clues that something might be amiss.
AMES ALEXANDER: Inspectors were finding cases where injuries weren’t showing up on the official records for one reason or another. There were, there were, uh, workers who said, you know, uh, “People get hurt all the time, but they’re afraid to report.”
NARRATOR: “Afraid,” the paper would learn, because most line workers in poultry plants are immigrants, concerned they might be fired if they complain.
And many, though not all, are undocumented, and also fear deportation.
NARRATOR: Now Spanish-speaking reporter Franco Ordoñez went to see if some Latino immigrant workers might be willing to speak up.
Some did talk.
Celia Lopez had carpal tunnel;
Karina Zorita’s hand pain made it hard to bend her fingers… or hold things.
Seferino Guadalupe shattered his ankle in a forklift accident.
It was put back together with screws.
And there was much more: punctures, fractures, chemical burns, and laceration after laceration.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: these communities are just filled with injured workers. I mean, this — these plants are just, you know, just shredding them out.
NARRATOR: Ordonez also learned of workers who had not only been injured… but claimed to have been coerced into staying at work once they were.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: Jaime Hernandez was probably the most difficult to track down. We were looking for him for about three weeks to a month. Jaime Hernandez: My job focused on the meat, getting it off the bone, at first grab it and cut it, that is piece after piece after piece.
JAIME HERNANDEZ: Because of the pain and such, I got these little balls in my hand. I had surgery, and after that, I asked if I could go home to rest. And they said no, that I needed to be at work, even if I didn’t do anything, just sitting in the office. And I said, but I don’t feel well, I’m dizzy, it hurts, things like that. They said you have to be at the plant so they can pay you, because if you aren’t, you can lose your job.
NARRATOR: Hernandez told Franco Ordonez a supervisor drove him back to work right after his surgery. The OBSERVER learned why a company might do that.
Patrick Scott: having no days away from work is the single biggest factor in determining worker’s compensation costs for a factory.
NARRATOR: Consultants who advise companies on workers compensation told the OBSERVER if injured workers return quickly, a company can save money in workers comp costs.
A quick return also means the company won’t have to report what OSHA calls a lost-time injury – reducing the chance that regulators will inspect the plant.
Jaime Hernandez worked for a company called House of Raeford Farms. The company would tell the OBSERVER that the paper’s account of what happened to Hernandez was inaccurate… but that it couldn’t discuss why because its personnel records are confidential.
House of Raeford is one of the nation’s top ten poultry producers, employing about 6,000 people in seven plants in the Carolinas and one in Louisiana.
The company slaughters and processes about 29 million pounds of chicken and turkey each week.
Kerry Hall and OBSERVER photographer John Simmons were granted access to House of Raeford’s West Columbia, South Carolina plant… where they got a firsthand glimpse of working conditions.
JOHN SIMMONS: The start of, uh, the whole process is in the live hang room. Where all the employee stands behind the line, uh, that -where live chickens are fed up a conveyer belt, and they’re moving around; they’re squawking and-and, uh, cackling. And, uh, the people are grabbing them, these large birds — at least 5, maybe 7 lbs, and they’re hanging them upside down by their — by their feet in the, uh, stirrups as they go by.
JOHN SIMMONS: Uh, there’s an animal feces smell from the, uh, from the chickens. Um, and just the animal smell itself. They’re doing hundreds and hundreds of birds per shift, if not thousands.
JOHN SIMMONS: And they’re constantly working to sharpen the knife – and immediately going back and cutting the bird.
KERRY HALL: I could see these people really literally standing shoulder to shoulder just having to do this work over and over again, and kind of the relentlessness of it.
NARRATOR: Kerry Hall had learned a remarkable fact about the West Columbia plant. It had gone four straight years without reporting a single case of a musculoskeletal disorder.
Experts told her zero MSD’s were inconceivable in a place where jobs require so much repetitive motion. Something went wrong here
At another House of Raeford plant — this one is in Greenville, South Carolina, and known as “Columbia Farms” — Franco Ordonez and Ames Alexander interviewed the safety director, Bill Lewis.
He told the reporters that Columbia Farms had a streak of seven million safe hours. He said — quote — “we come to work with five fingers and toes, and we go home with the same thing we came in with.”
AMES ALEXANDER: You know, after we got back from that interview, we started looking through the logs.
KERRY HALL: And noticed that there had been some pretty serious injuries that occurred during this time that there were seven million safe hours with no lost-time accidents.
NARRATOR: The logs the reporters were examining are known as 300 logs. They’re required by OSHA and are intended to serve as an accounting of serious jobsite injuries and illnesses. Osha uses 300 logs to help determine how safe plants are, and whether or not they need inspection.
The reporters would use them to help determine whether or not the companies were under-reporting injuries.
But it was something the logs didn’t contain that would help them answer a broader question: why did official statistics make the poultry industry seem so much safer than experts believed it could possibly be?
AMES ALEXANDER: There used to be a column on injury logs where companies were supposed to record all repetitive motion injuries. Uh, and this essentially gave OSHA inspectors a very quick idea of how common repetitive motion problems like carpal tunnel, like tendonitis, were. Uh, and then, uh, under pressure, uh, from the industry, OSHA removed that column.
NARRATOR: It was OSHA under the Bush administration that removed the column in 2002. The result, according to Ames Alexander?
AMES ALEXANDER: OSHA essentially made it easier for companies to hide these sort of repetitive motion injuries. One plant we looked at, uh, in 2001, it had 150 repetitive motion injuries. After they removed the column, they had fewer than 10.
NARRATOR: The Bush administration also repealed a collection of rules put in place at the end of the Clinton administration. The rules, which formed a national ergonomics standard, would have required employers to correct workplace conditions likely to cause repetitive-motion and other injuries.
Charles Jeffress, who headed OSHA from 1997 to 2001, told the OBSERVER that the effect of repealing the ergonomic standard and removing the column was to “turn a blind eye to a lot of what happens in poultry plants.”
And one OSHA insider was even more blunt. Bob Whitmore – When you look at a log, it’s supposed to tell us — it is supposed to tell us what’s going on in this workplace. You have to understand, it was always intended to be a surveillance tool.
NARRATOR: Bob Whitmore, for twenty years the OSHA official in charge of the agency’s injury and illness records, agreed to act as an inside source for the OBSERVER.
BOB WHITMORE: We have so many workplaces to cover and so few people to cover them with. When we walk in, we want to see what’s going on. It’s like a Candid Camera. That’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s not like that anymore; it’s a report card. Problem is, the students are grading themselves.
NARRATOR: Other OSHA officials told the OBSERVER that poultry plants are safer than ever. They cited enforcement programs, a decade of declining reported-injury rates, and a growing recognition that reducing injuries is good for business.
NARRATOR: For Franco Ordonez, one woman’s story crystalized the plight of immigrant poultry workers. Her name was Cornelia Vicente, and she worked at House of Raeford’s Columbia Farms plant.
The OBSERVER found her name in the records of a workers compensation lawsuit. Now Ordonez went looking for her.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: I was able to find Cornelia through talking to enough workers, where eventually they’d point you to the right house.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: She slowly started to open up, uh, about what occurred to her. Um, and as she opened up and she, uh, started to explain what happened, she just started — basically just everything started pouring out of her, uh, you know, all the-the anger, the sadness, the fear, um, everything that kind of was wrapped up in this experience of her working at that poultry plant.
KERRY HALL: She had been working on a conveyor belt. She was grabbing boxes. And she didn’t want to get behind in her work so she tried to grab two boxes at the same time and her right arm ended up getting caught in the conveyor belt. It grabbed her arm, broke her arm and amputated the tip of her, uh, one of her fingers.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ: you know, she gets rushed to the — to the hospital, uh, you know, she doesn’t know what’s going on…
KERRY HALL: While she was at the hospital she says the plant nurse came and visited with her and fed her but also told her that she was expected back for the next shift. Patrick Scott: So she wound up going to work and saying that she was — wanted to go home. She had asked to go home, that she was crying at work because she couldn’t deal with the pain of the physical loss of her finger and her broken arm and the pain of having your body altered.
NARRATOR: Jaime Hernandez worked at Columbia Farms. He saw Cornelia Vicente the day after her she returned to work. The next day when she got there she went around, trembling, sad, crying like she wasn’t even there. She wasn’t there. Physically yes, but in her thoughts no. She was out of it, gone. I felt like crying with her.
NARRATOR: The Columbia Farms log revealed that Vicente would spend over nine weeks on what it known as “job transfer,” given tasks away from the conveyor belt.
KERRY HALL: She said at one point they asked her to sweep and she said it was — she described it as an impossible task given her broken arm and the pain she was feeling.
NARRATOR: When the reporters compared Vicente’s account of her injuries and her medical records with what House of Raeford Farms had reported to regulators they found the company had mentioned the broken arm… but not the amputation.
KERRY HALL: That wasn’t noted on this.
NARRATOR: And, the OBSERVER would report, because Vicente didn’t miss a complete shift, the accident wouldn’t have to be counted as a lost-time injury.
KERRY HALL: She was on job transfer for 64 days. No days away from work.
NARRATOR: The paper would also report that House of Raeford refused to answer its questions about Cornelia Vicente.
In 2006 and 7, Ordonez, Hall and Alexander interviewed more than 200 current and former poultry workers from different companies, mostly in the Carolinas… Including about 120 from House of Raeford Farms.
Now, in March 2007, armed with numerous stories of underreporting of injuries — and employees being pressured to work while injured — Kerry Hall went to Washington to seek comment from the OSHA records expert, Bob Whitmore . Among other evidence, the reporters had compiled a list of injury rates reported by poultry companies in 2005.
KERRY HALL: When I was showing this to Bob…
AMES ALEXANDER: Uh-huh.
KERRY HALL: He was looking through this and he would see these zeroes, these zero injury and illness rates, and he just started getting fired up. He would just start saying, “I can’t believe that, I can’t believe that’s there.”
NARRATOR: Kerry Hall also shared evidence of 41 House of Raeford injuries that the team learned of in a sampling of workers who lived near the company’s plants.
BOB WHITMORE: As Kerry and I went through some of the descriptions of injuries that she was finding out about, I decided at that point in time was that a recordable case or not? Should it have been on that log?
NARRATOR: Whitmore concluded the company violated workplace safety law by failing to record more than half of the injuries. The OBSERVER would report that House of Raeford Farms told the paper the company follows the law, looks out for the safety of its workers and treats them with respect.
Presented with findings from the OBSERVER, the company wrote in a letter that there were – quote – “many inaccuracies” in the information workers provided, and said that “the allegations made by these former employees do not fairly or accurately represent the policies or management practices of House of Raeford Farms.” The letter continued, “We value our employees and strive to treat them in a fair and respectful manner at all times.”
NARRATOR: In February 2008, after 22 months of work examining thousands of pages of documents and conducting over 800 interviews THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER published a 6-day series. It was called “The Cruelest Cuts.”
The paper concluded that “weak enforcement, minimal fines and dwindling inspections have allowed [poultry] companies to operate largely unchecked”… and that “official injury statistics aren’t accurate and that the industry is more dangerous than its reports to regulators suggest.”
Among other findings:
In North Carolina, the number of OSHA poultry plant inspections fell from 25 in 1997 to nine in 2006. South Carolina poultry plant inspections dropped from 36 in 1999 to 1 in 2006.
Nationwide, OSHA workplace safety inspections at U.S. poultry plants have dropped to their lowest point in 15 years. In fact the government rewards companies that report low injury rates by inspecting them less often. And Washington’s regulators rarely check whether companies are reporting accurately.
BOB WHITMORE: There’s a disconnect. The spin in D.C. disconnects you from reality. The agency isn’t doing what it should be doing. Because we’re not there representing the workers. We’re there representing the businesses.
MITCH WEISS: You know, when I go to work every day there is the expectation that I’m going to come home in one piece. That I’m going to go to an office and leave and come home safe. These workers have no such expectations.
This transcript was entered on May 26, 2015.