Peter Waldman, along with Kartikay Mehrotra have continued Bloomberg Businessweek’s amazing — and amazingly disturbing — coverage of the underbelly of the American workplace jungle in 2017.
This piece, “America’s Worst Graveyard Shift Is Grinding Up Workers,” describes the horrible work-lives of a beleaguered population of mostly invisible immigrant workers who labor all night, in working conditions straight from the 1800’s, cleaning the nation’s slaughterhouses and animal processing plants.
Waldman, you may remember, wrote a devastating piece last March, Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs, the tragic story of auto part factory workers, which, as I summarized, highlighted the gruesome stories of
Regina Elsea, age 20, killed in an Ajin plant two weeks before here wedding; Cordney Crutcher who lost his left pinkie while operating a metal press at Matsu Alabama; Phyllis Taylor, 53, who scorched her hand inside an industrial oven last year at the HP Pelzer Automotive Systems Inc. insulation plant in Thomson, Ga.; Nathaniel Walker, 26, who fell into a vat of sulfuric and phosphoric acid 4 feet deep; Rico Allen, who lost his right forearm and three fingers on the other hand when he was 30; and on and on and on.
You need to put away all of your Christmas presents and read this article right now. And just to get you going, I’m going to provide kind of a written “trailer” summarizing the themes of this article with a few select quotes. But do not stop here. Read the entire article. Or if you have limited time, just skip my summary, do not pass go and go directly to the article.
The Work: “They were forced to work at punishing speeds in ankle-deep water with floating fat and chicken guts”
In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” a famous novel of working conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses. As Waldman and describe, however, things haven’t gotten a whole lot better for many of these workers over the last 110 years.
The only slaughterhouse job worse than eviscerating animals is cleaning up afterward. The third-shift workers, as the cleaners are often called, wade through blood and grease and chunks of bone and flesh, racing all night to hose down the plant with disinfectants and scalding water. The stench is unbearable. Many workers retch.
And at Farm Fresh
They were forced to work at punishing speeds in ankle-deep water with floating fat and chicken guts. They were enclosed in poorly ventilated rooms with chlorinated cleaning products wafting in the air, severely limited in bathroom and water breaks. The chemical vapor caused heart-pounding insomnia, Miguel says. Several workers had to seek medical help. Workers who didn’t keep up the pace were moved to an extremely cold area of the plant as punishment.
The Injuries: “The blender suddenly jerked back to life, snagging Sherman’s hose and snapping off both his arms “
The injuries workers suffered are mostly due to management’s failure to comply with OSHA’s lockout-tagout standard (Control of Hazardous Energy) which requires that machinery not just be switched off, but that the machine is made impossible to start up while a worker’s head or limbs are inside.
Brent Sherman, 37, couldn’t keep track of all the modifications at Tyson’s meatpacking plant in St. Joseph, Mo. Early one morning in 2015, he was hosing down a Cozzini meat blender, capable of grinding 8,000 pounds at a time, when it did something he didn’t expect. Before starting, Sherman had set the blender’s controls on sanitation mode, ensuring it wouldn’t power up for 60 minutes; safety sensors on the machine were meant to keep it powered off until he reinstalled all the pieces, even if it took him more than an hour.
What he didn’t realize was that someone had disarmed the sensors so it would automatically restart after the sanitation cycle, making it easier—but infinitely more dangerous—to hose down, according to OSHA’s investigation. When the hour was up, the blender suddenly jerked back to life, snagging Sherman’s hose and snapping off both his arms below the elbow.
OSHA’s investigation found a sanitation culture of wanton bravado at the plant. Many sensors had been similarly disabled for faster cleaning, the agency discovered. A night-shift worker was a plant legend for his speed and daring, based on his refusal to power down a single machine during sanitation. Cleaning workers told OSHA that the only time they felt any pressure from Tyson managers to properly lock out machines was when a government inspector was expected at the plant.
The Employees: Immigrants desperate for a job and afraid to complain
The jobs are so difficult that “only the destitute or desperate will take—very often undocumented immigrants.”
Meatpackers tend to be scrupulous these days about checking the papers of production-line hires. Landing a job on the third shift, however, is easy for undocumented workers, especially at smaller plants and with cleaning contractors, immigrants say. All workers in the U.S. must have proof of identity and employment authorization, which companies are not obligated to verify as authentic. Employers are responsible only for misrepresentations the government brings to their attention. Perhaps most important: All sides know the feds rarely raid at night.
Outsourcing sanitation is “driven purely by profit,” says Tim Cox, who runs a consulting firm in North Carolina that specializes in sanitation for meat and poultry producers. “It’s less costly to hire someone with no documentation who doesn’t understand his worker rights than to hire someone who does.”
The Enforcement Agency: OSHA – The Handicapped Enforcer
OSHA can’t just enter any workplace it wants and look at whatever it wants to. A fatality, hospitalizations or a worker complaint provide justification, as do OSHA national or regional emphasis programs. And if OSHA is in a plant due to a fatality or injury, the general rule is that OSHA can’t just wander around the plant looking for hazards, but can only cite the employer for hazards related to the specific incident or anything in the inspector’s “plain view.”
During the Obama administration, however, OSHA increased inspections of poultry plants issued a national emphasis program that allowed inspectors to expand inspections to look at things like musculoskeletal injuries and bathroom breaks which may not have been included in the original complaint. This was based on information and data that these hazards were common in poultry plants, even if they didn’t cause traumatic injuries or weren’t part of workers’ complaints.
In addition, employers can require OSHA to get a search warrant before inspecting a worksite. Employers rarely request search warrants, however, although that has changed recently in the poultry processing industry.
To make sure that OSHA never sees bathroom access as a problem, or that an inspector wouldn’t expand the inspection beyond the original incident or complaint, poultry employers have recently increased the number of denials of entry to OSHA inspectors — forcing them to get a warrant. From 2005-2015, there were only 16 denials of entry in the meat and poultry industry, but in just 2016 alone, there were 15 denials, all in Region IV, specifically in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
Waldman reports, however, that slaughterhouse attorneys have now gone a step further to ensure that inspectors won’t “accidentally” identify hazards in “plain view” while walking to the location of the incident.
When an OSHA inspector returned four days later to examine the blast victim’s tools, Mar-Jac’s attorney, Mark Waschack of Wimberly Lawson Steckel Schneider & Stine in Atlanta, said the inspector could walk through the plant to the locker room where the tools were located, but only if he agreed to wear a cardboard box over his head to blind him to any safety hazards. “Mr. Waschack stated that he had previously done this to two [inspectors] in two previous OSHA inspections,” wrote OSHA’s Robin Bennett in a court affidavit.
Bennett refused to wear the box. Instead, OSHA issued a search warrant, which, at Mar-Jac’s request, a Gainesville federal judge quashed, saying OSHA lacked probable cause. The agency fined Mar-Jac $20,000 for violations linked to the explosion and appealed the search-warrant ruling last March to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, arguing the injury logs and electrical blast provided a “reasonable suspicion” of safety violations. The appellate court has yet to rule.
That’s enough to whet your appetite. Go and read the entire article. And contemplate the condition of the American workplace of 2017.