16-year old

Another teenager has died in a workplace where children have no business working.

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) – A teenage boy is dead after an accident at a local chicken plant.

The accident occurred around 8 p.m. on July 14 at the Mar-Jac Poultry MS LLC’s Hattiesburg poultry processing plant on James Street. According to a press release from the company, an employee conducting sanitation operations died of injuries sustained in the accident.

Forrest County Deputy Coroner Lisa Klem identified the employee as a 16-year-old Hispanic male from Hattiesburg and said he died on the scene. The teen’s name is being withheld at this time due to his age and ongoing investigations. However, Klem said his family had been notified.

The teen was conducting “sanitizing operations.”

“Sanitizing operations” in a poultry plant may sound like something benign like spraying the floors with disinfectant, but it’s actually highly dangerous work cleaning blood and remains out of hazardous machinery that often has not been turned off or locked out.

UPDATE: The boy’s name was Duvan Tomas Perez and he was a middle school student.

A worker who was on duty at the time of the accident spoke of hearing the boy screaming for help, but it was already too late. 

“Two times he began to scream, ‘Help! Help!’” the worker said.

“I knew he had died,” the worker added.

Who Could Have Known?

No employer should be unaware of the nation’s growing child labor problem.  This tragedy comes after months of media coverage about the growing scourge of illegal child labor and increased federal agency enforcement activity — along with more frequent deaths of children in the workplace.

The Mar-Jac teen-whose-name-shall-be-withheld is at least the third 16 year old killed in the workplace over the last several weeks.

High School sophomore Will Hampton was killed last month when he was crushed to death when he was pinned between a tractor-trailer rig and its trailer at Lees Summit Resource and Recovery Park in Missouri.

And just two weeks ago, 16 year-old Michael Schuls was killed in a sawmill in Florence, Wisconsin, where he had been trying to unjam a wood-stacking machine and was pinned inside.

In February, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division had fined Packers Sanitation Services for employing over 100 children in some of the most dangerous workplaces in the country.  That followed a Reuters investigation showing that “at least four major suppliers of Hyundai Motor Co and sister Kia Corp have employed child labor at Alabama factories in recent years.”

And in February,  the New York Times published a lengthy major exposé on  child labor by Hannah Dreier, entitled “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.” It was a shocking story of widespread exploitation of immigrant children, here without parents, working for some of the biggest companies in the country. And the abject failure of government oversight and enforcement.

Political Response: More Child Labor and Less Enforcement

The Biden administration, recognizing its failure to keep track of immigrant children and keep them out of hazardous workplaces, has been attempting to revamp its systems for protecting unaccompanied minors who enter the country from Latin America.

Republicans, who are SHOCKED and OUTRAGED at the negligence of the Biden administration have responded in various ways:

  • Passing legislation in several Republican-Controlled states that reduce protections for working children;
  • Yelling at Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su at a recent hearing;
  • Proposing a by $75 million cut –almost 30% — to the budget of the already starved Wage and Hour Division, the agency that enforces child labor violations.
  • Proposing a 15% cut in the budget of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a tiny agency which seeks to ensure safe working conditions — for children and adults.

Lessons Learned?

It’s not like Mar-Jac had no idea that the work was dangerous: “This is not the first time Mar-Jac Poultry has had a fatal accident at their Hattiesburg processing plant. In 2020, two men were killed in separate accidents just six months apart – 33-year-old Joel Velasco Toto and 48-year-old Bobby Butler.”

Debbie Berkowitz, former OSHA official from the Obama administration, said the company has a “horrible safety record” and previously “fought to prevent OSHA from looking for safety violations after previous serious injuries.”

An OSHA enforcement record from October 2021 notes that inspectors who went to the company’s Georgia location were unable to complete an inspection because they were denied entry.

But never fear. Mar-Jac has assured us that “Our employees are our most valuable asset, and safety is our number one priority. We strive daily to work as safely as possible and are truly devastated whenever an employee is injured.”

Truly devastated.

If I had a dime for every time an employer uttered those words after one of their employees was killed — I’d be rich.

And if employers were actually serious that “safety is their number one priority” — there would be far fewer dead workers.

(Updated on July 19 with more information about the child and quote by Debbie Berkowitz)

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