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By KERRY HALL, AMES ALEXANDER and FRANCO ORDOÑEZ
In an industry rife with danger, House of Raeford Farms depicts itself as a safe place to work. Company records suggest relatively few workers are injured each year as they kill, cut and package millions of chickens and turkeys. But an Observer investigation shows the N.C. poultry giant has masked the extent of injuries behind its plant walls.
The company has compiled misleading injury reports and has defied regulators as it satisfies a growing appetite for America's most popular meat. And employees say the company has ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job.
House of Raeford officials say they follow the law and strive to protect workers.
But company and government records and interviews with more than 120 current and former employees show:
• House of Raeford's 800-worker plant in West Columbia, S.C., reported no musculoskeletal disorders over four years. Experts say that's inconceivable. MSDs, including carpal tunnel syndrome, are the most common work-related injuries afflicting poultry workers.
• Its Greenville, S.C., plant has boasted of a five-year safety streak with no lost-time accidents. But the plant kept that streak alive by bringing injured employees back to the factory hours after surgery.
• The company has broken the law by failing to record injuries on government safety logs, a top OSHA official says.
• At four of the company's largest Carolinas plants, company first-aid attendants and supervisors have dismissed some workers' requests to see a doctor -- even when they complained of debilitating pain.
Companies have a financial incentive to hide injuries. Ignoring them lowers costs associated with compensating injured workers for medical care and lost wages.
Also, the government rewards companies that report low injury rates by inspecting them less often. And regulators rarely check whether companies are reporting accurately.
Government statistics show a decade-long decline in injuries among poultry workers. Critics say the numbers are misleading. They point to one government measure showing that employees in toy stores are more likely than poultry workers to develop musculoskeletal disorders.
Experts say that's implausible; poultry workers routinely make more than 20,000 cutting motions a shift, and the work often leaves them with nerve and muscle damage.
House of Raeford and other poultry companies depend heavily on workers' hands to turn thousands of birds each day into convenient cuts for restaurants, stores and cafeterias. Companies increasingly rely on Latino immigrants, who are often reluctant to complain for fear of being fired or deported.
House of Raeford says it looks out for the safety of workers and treats them with respect.
"We come to work with five fingers and toes," said company safety director Bill Lewis. "And we go home with the same thing we came in with."
The newspaper asked one of the federal government's top record-keeping experts to review House of Raeford's safety logs and what injured workers told the Observer. Bob Whitmore, who has directed the national injury and illness record-keeping system for the U.S. Labor Department since 1988, said he believes his agency has failed to protect poultry workers.
Whitmore was not authorized to comment for the government but said he felt compelled to speak on behalf of workers.
After reviewing the Observer's findings, he said, "This is violating the laws of human decency."
Growth comes with cost
House of Raeford isn't a household name.It has climbed from a backyard bird operation to one of the nation's top 10 poultry processors, helping make North Carolina the second-largest turkey producer. The company expanded turkey consumption beyond holiday dinner tables by creating new products, including deli-style breast meat and turkey "dinosaur" wings. It has grown by acquiring competitors and selling chicken parts overseas.
Its rise has come with a human cost.
Workers have been maimed by machines and poisoned by toxic chemicals. Two were killed in accidents managers might have prevented. Even more suffer from grueling, repetitive work that can leave their hands wracked with pain or missing fingers.
The company, based in Raeford in Eastern North Carolina, has been cited for 130 serious workplace safety violations since 2000 -- among the most of any U.S. poultry company.
In communities surrounding House of Raeford plants, the pain of poultry work can be found in aging trailer parks and clusters of weathered rental houses where sheets cover windows for privacy. Knee-high rubber boots spattered with chicken fat rest on stoops.
In Raeford, about 100 miles east of Charlotte, former line worker Claudette Outerbridge lay awake nights because of pain pulsating in her right hand. The ache, she said, stemmed from her work, which included cutting thousands of turkey gizzards each day.
During her more than five years at the plant, Outerbridge held a variety of jobs, including pulling out turkey guts and trimming parts. She said she moved from New York, where she worked as a police department clerk, and took a job at the plant in 1998.
She began visiting the first-aid station almost daily around 2002 to cope with the pain, she said. A first-aid attendant, she said, gave her a cream but performed no tests and refused her request to see a doctor.
She recalled times on the production line when her hand hurt so badly she dropped her scissors and cried.
"They'd say, `Oh, you're not hurting,' " Outerbridge said. "They made me feel that I was bothering them to go to the nurse, that I was supposed to take the pain."
When she told a plant manager she needed medical help, "He sat me down and he said, `I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do about it,' " recalled Outerbridge, now 48. "That day, I got a lawyer."
In 2003, she went on her own to a doctor, who diagnosed her with severe carpal tunnel syndrome and later performed surgery, she said. She settled a workers' compensation case with the company the following year for an undisclosed sum.
"I just wanted justice," she said. "I just wanted someone to take care of my hand."
House of Raeford said it can't discuss Outerbridge's case because the settlement is confidential.
Human resources director Gene Shelnutt said the privately held company considers its workers family. The company, he said, "would never allow anyone to mistreat anyone in the family. ... I believe we have provided the care for our employees that is expected."
Current and former human resources employees at two House of Raeford plants said the company finds reasons to fire injured workers.
Belem Villegas, a former employment supervisor at the Greenville plant, said her boss didn't like "repeat complainers."
For five years until spring 2005, Villegas hired workers and translated for Spanish-speaking employees. She shared an office with the plant medical director and said as many as 20 workers a day came in saying their hands, wrists and arms hurt.
She said she urged plant managers to send injured employees to a doctor, but they often refused. "They'd say, `Belem, if they keep coming to the office, they're going to have to be let go.' "
Workers got the message. "You complain and you become unemployed," Villegas said.
House of Raeford didn't respond to questions about Villegas' allegations. The company said it fired her because she was "accepting money to provide employment favors to potential employees." Villegas denied the claim and said she believes she was fired, in part, because she started speaking up for workers.
The Observer interviewed more than 50 workers no longer employed at House of Raeford. Ten said they were fired after reporting injuries.
Company officials said workers are required to tell supervisors if they are hurt and that they will be sent to plant first-aid stations, or outside doctors if need be. They also noted that plants are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union and that its representatives have "full grievance procedures at their disposal." Local union officials said membership is less than 30 percent at some plants because immigrants are often reluctant to join, making it difficult to enact change.
"Certainly, we work hard to run a safe and healthy workplace, and to comply with all state and federal laws," Barry Cronic, complex manager of the Greenville plant, said in a written response. "...If any supervisor is discouraging employees from reporting injuries, that supervisor is in violation of company policy."
Carolina Cruz said her pleas for help were repeatedly ignored. A young mother, Cruz took a job at the Greenville plant in 2003 cutting chicken wings. After her hands started to throb, she said, she went to a company nurse who several times gave her ointment and sent her back to the line. "They don't help us at all," she said.
By the summer of 2006, she said, "My bones hurt .... If I continue like this, my hands are going to get to the point where I won't be able to do anything."
Cruz later left the plant.
House of Raeford declined to comment on many of the workers' specific allegations, saying that, without signed releases, it was unable to discuss details of their health or employment. In general, the company said it found "many inaccuracies" in the information workers provided to the Observer but declined to elaborate.
"The allegations made by these former employees do not fairly or accurately represent the policies or management practices of House of Raeford Farms," the company wrote.
Injuries not reported
If House of Raeford's records are accurate, the company in recent years has operated some of the nation's safest chicken and turkey plants.
Businesses are required to record most serious injuries and illnesses on U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration logs. But it's an honor system, and companies must give logs to regulators and employees only if asked. Regulators use the logs to spot troubling workplace safety trends.
The newspaper obtained four years of logs for company plants in Greenville, West Columbia and Raeford.
In a sampling of workers in neighborhoods surrounding the plants, the Observer confirmed 31 injuries serious enough to be recorded for regulators. In 12 of those cases, the injuries didn't show up on logs.
Seferino Guadalupe was driving a machine moving pallets of turkey breasts at one of the company's two Raeford plants in November 2006 when, he said, the brakes failed and he crashed into a wall. Surgeons inserted screws to repair his shattered ankle.
Bernestine Wright said her hands went numb after months of cutting chickens into bite-sized pieces at the Greenville plant. She said a company nurse refused to send her to a doctor when she complained about pains.
The pain grew so intense, she said, she visited a doctor and received painkillers. She was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in 2005, according to the law firm that represented her in a workers' compensation case.
Lucas Hernandez cut his arm with a knife in summer 2005 while on the production line at the West Columbia plant. He missed work the next two days because of pain, he said.
None of those injuries showed up on House of Raeford injury logs.
In addition to the 31 injuries the Observer confirmed, 10 more workers described serious injuries that weren't recorded, but the newspaper could not confirm their medical treatment.
Whitmore, the OSHA record-keeping expert, examined House of Raeford logs and details of the 41 injuries the Observer found. He concluded the company violated workplace safety law by failing to record more than half of those injuries.
"These are severe, serious, debilitating cases," Whitmore said.
Company officials said they follow OSHA rules for recording injuries, and are unaware of any work-related injuries being excluded from the logs. Lewis, the company's safety director, said he couldn't explain why Guadalupe's accident wasn't included and called it "an isolated case." He said the company has corrected its logs.
Company officials said Wright's allegations are inaccurate but wouldn't elaborate.
At the West Columbia plant, safety manager Mike Flowers said that because Hernandez stayed home on his own and did not call his supervisor, managers didn't know the extent of his injury. "There's a lot of gray area," Flowers said.
Nonsense, said Whitmore.
"The supervisor knew there was an injury. The person missed work and it was because of pain related to an injury," he said. "It was clearly recordable. Period."
Poultry plants are filled with hazards. On one side of the factory, employees grab live birds before hanging them upside down on moving hooks that whisk them off for slaughter. On the other side -- after the birds are scalded, plucked and chilled -- they're hurried along production lines where workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder wielding blades for hours with few breaks.Temperatures hover near freezing to prevent the spread of bacteria. Water drips off machinery, falling onto floors slick with chicken fat. The din of clanking conveyor belts makes conversation nearly impossible.
The conditions are ripe for musculoskeletal disorders, which afflict the muscles and nerves in wrists, arms, necks and backs. MSDs also include repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.
At the West Columbia plant, which employs 800, not a single musculoskeletal disorder was recorded from July 2003 to April 2007, according to the most current records obtained by the Observer.
Twelve employees who worked at the plant during that time said in interviews they suffered pains commonly brought on by MSDs. Two said they had surgery for carpal tunnel at company expense. Most of the others said they complained to company officials about their injuries but weren't sent to doctors or given time off from work -- steps that likely would have made their injuries recordable.
James Mabe, the complex manager, said he was unsure why his logs showed no musculoskeletal disorders.
Company officials said plant safety committees regularly look for hazards. Frequent knife sharpening, adjustable work stations and other safety measures contribute to low injury and illness rates, they said.
Mabe also said the plant recently spent $3.5 million for equipment that included a machine to remove guts from chickens, eliminating a highly repetitive job.
He offered another explanation: "Hispanics are very good with their hands and working with a knife. We've gotten less complaints."
Asked to elaborate, Mabe said, "It's more like a natural movement for them."
Tom Armstrong, a University of Michigan professor who has studied the prevalence of MSDs in poultry processing, questioned how Mabe arrived at his conclusion about Hispanics. "I know of absolutely no data to support that," he said.
Armstrong said it's highly unlikely a large poultry plant could go consecutive years without a case of carpal tunnel or tendinitis.
"I'd be skeptical of the record-keeping in a situation like that," he said.
Company fights in court
House of Raeford has a history of underreporting injuries.
In 1997, union leaders at a plant in Raeford received calls from workers complaining about injuries. Yet the plant was reporting one of the industry's lowest injury and illness rates -- 3.5 per 100 workers -- well below the industry average of 16.6.
The union looked closer and found the plant had crossed 159 names off its 1996 and 1997 injury logs.
State regulators investigated and found that 35 of those names had been crossed off with "plain indifference to the law." They could not confirm others because some of the workers had left the plant and could not be found.
Regulators designated the violation as "willful" -- the toughest category under OSHA rules -- and recommended a $9,000 fine. House of Raeford fought back. The state threw out the willful designation and reduced the fine to $800. House of Raeford says it has since established procedures "to prevent any further occurrences of the same nature."
Because House of Raeford reports some of the industry's lowest injury and illness rates, workplace safety officials rarely conduct random inspections at its plants.
Several times when inspectors did show up at one of the Raeford plants, managers refused to let them in.
Acting on a tip that workers were suffering injuries, regulators in 1999 began investigating. They spoke with 40 workers, many of whom complained of throbbing pain in their hands, arms and shoulders. More than a third had been diagnosed with repetitive motion problems.
One of the inspectors, J. D. Lewis, recalls seeing young workers who could no longer use their arms or hands properly. One couldn't lift his arms above his head, he recalled.
Inspectors wanted to talk with more workers, but House of Raeford officials repeatedly blocked them -- even when they arrived with a warrant. Company officials said the interviews would disrupt operations.
The case went to N.C. Superior Court, where Judge Jack Hooks ruled in late 2000 that the state had no authority to investigate further. His reason: Compliance deadlines for a new federal ergonomics standard had not yet kicked in.
A visit to the largely Latino communities surrounding the Raeford plants reveals the hidden cost of poultry work. A year after the accident that shattered his ankle, Guadalupe struggles to walk with crutches and said he is unable to work because of lingering pain.
Four houses down, Ernesto Ramirez, a House of Raeford sanitation worker, said he had blurred vision for three days in 2006 after chlorine splashed into his eyes from a loose hose at work.
Down the road, Guillermo Santiago had the top half of three fingers sheared off last February when he tried to jimmy loose a hose from a grinding machine. Doctors were able to reattach just one finger.
A native of Vera Cruz, Mexico, Santiago said he's reminded of his accident each time he looks at his hands.
"I'm never going to be the same."
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