The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is fighting against a federal magistrate’s ruling denying the agency a warrant that would allow it to inspect a poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia for alleged worker safety violations. The U.S. Magistrate stated that federal regulators first must set forth clear probable cause, or else inspections end up becoming “tools of harassment.” In this case, the judge held, this standard had not been met.
OSHA is appealing.
Although the agency already conducted a cursory search of the facility, it had requested an expanded inspection. The magistrate, however, held that the probable cause standard wasn’t met and, interestingly, could not be met solely on the basis of a worker’s complaint or a reported work injury. OSHA had asserted that those should be reason enough, but even so, this was a situation where there were high numbers of work-related injuries. The agency believes the company to be not only in violation of serious safety rules but also poor record-keeping practices.
Last year, the number of musculoskeletal injuries reported by poultry plant workers was more than two dozen. In addition, there were six workers harmed when they were struck by objects, seven injured in slip-and-fall accidents, and 10 who suffered eye injuries that were the result of “biological hazards.” OSHA says that not only are these incidents “enough injuries” to establish a firm basis for probable cause, the numbers are also above the average rate for an industry that is already precarious and deemed “high hazard.” Additionally, the poor record-keeping issue suggests the actual number of injuries at this particular plant is even higher than what has been reported.
This legal battle has proven to be a stumbling block for the agency’s newest workplace safety initiative, the Regional Emphasis Program. The program was launched late last year, and is intended to bolster the safety of workers who toil in poultry plants through a multi-pronged approach that includes:
- Enforcement (including inspections).
The poultry industry has been riddled with work-safety problems that were detailed last year by Oxfam, which reported that in addition to workers being at higher risk of injury and illness and earning low wages of diminishing value, they are also routinely denied bathroom breaks. This has resulted in the widespread worker practices of reducing liquid intake during work hours (which is dangerous considering how hot it can become, particularly on the line) and, in some instances, adults wearing diapers to avoid having to use the restroom and face a reprimand or termination. There was also an investigation by Propublica about the extent to which some of the industry’s largest companies had pushed for changes in workers’ compensation law in some 25 states – to the great detriment of workers.
The Regional Emphasis Program was the basis for OSHA’s request for a warrant to inspect 16 areas of inquiry that go beyond initial inspections. This began in February this year when a worker suffered third-degree burns on his hands and face. OSHA officials also suspect under-reporting of work safety problems because many of the workers are immigrants and do not speak English, or don’t speak it very well.
It is also well-established by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that poultry workers suffer rates of serious injury that are far in excess of those of most other private sector industries. They are also at higher risk of work-related illness. They miss more days of work and suffer more hearing loss and respiratory illnesses.
Those who manage the industry insist these figures are misleading. Lawyers for OSHA say the request for more in-depth inspections are based on evidence prompted by an accident, which means no Fourth Amendment violations have occurred.
For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.