TAR HEEL -- Every day, 30,500 hogs enter a sprawling complex of metal buildings in Bladen County, emerging hours later in the form of 6 million pounds of shrink-wrapped pork chops and other meat products.
The job of killing, cutting and packaging is performed by 6,000 people at the Smithfield Packing Co. plant, the world's largest pork slaughterhouse.
The plant in Tar Heel, about 100 miles south of Raleigh, has been been described by some as a harsh and dangerous workplace where people toil until their bodies give out and they either quit or get fired. The latest such salvo came in January, when an international human rights organization accused the company of widespread employee abuse.
Smithfield fired back the same day, saying the report was full of inaccuracies and false information. Injuries at Smithfield factories have been declining in recent years as the company has focused on safety, a company spokesman said.
But what really goes on inside the walls of the massive plant 100 miles south of Raleigh remains unknown, even to the state agency charged with protecting North Carolina workers.
No one at the N.C. Department of Labor can say today whether employees at Smithfield or anywhere else are safe on the job. No one knows which work sites have the most injuries.
By law, three or more employees must be hurt in an accident, or a worker must die, before their boss is required to pick up the phone and call the state. That means tens of thousands of injuries every year may never be accounted for.
Companies are required by law to provide a safe work environment for their employees, and most do. But few will ever see a state inspector on their property to confirm it.
Although the Labor Department now focuses almost all its planned inspections on industries with high injury rates including meat-packing plants its staff of 110 inspectors reaches fewer than 6,000 of North Carolina's 230,000 workplaces every year.
When the state initiated such an inspection at the Tar Heel plant last week, it was only the second planned inspection there since Smithfield began its operation in Bladen County 13 years ago. It could be up to six months before the results of the inspection will be made public.
Actually, someone knows how many injuries occur at Smithfield, but they aren't telling:
The only North Carolina office that knows firsthand about injuries on the job is the N.C. Industrial Commission, which handles workers' compensation claims. The commission doesn't communicate with the Labor Department, however.But they really really care about their employees. Except for the ones that they work half to death, then when their backs give out, refuse to acknowledge that the injury may have been work-related and deny workers comp. Does this sound like it might produce a work-related back injury?
Its 28-year-old computer system is incapable of sorting and analyzing claims by employer, according to its chairman, Buck Lattimore.
This has created a worker protection system that relies almost entirely on employees to report problems, leaving most companies to regulate themselves.
The large sides of pork barreled down the belt, 3 seconds apart. [Ray] Hall's job was to wrestle them into position, sink two hooks into them and slide the 50-pound pieces of meat to an adjacent table. There he clipped them in place so other workers could quickly cut out the loins.During the OSHA ergonomics debates of the late 1990's, the companies insisted that these injuries were caused by workers playing softball, bowling or tennis on the weekends and then blaming the resulting injuries on work. Yeah, that's the ticket. Has nothing to do with the guy pushing 450,000 pounds of pork every day.
In an eight-hour shift, he'd hook more than 9,000 sides. An automatic counter made sure he and his co-workers kept up the pace.
"Those lines flew," he said.
Eventually, the furious pace took its toll. On April 12, Hall said, a year after he started work at Smithfield, he felt something pull in his back. His supervisor sent him to the company health clinic across the street from the plant. A nurse told him he had just pulled a muscle and sent him back to work, Hall said.
Hall insists he signed a form saying he had suffered a work-related injury. The company's medical files show no record of that clinic visit. Hall says the document "disappeared."
By the next day, his pain had become so severe that the company nurse asked him to see an outside doctor. An MRI showed two herniated discs in his spine.
Smithfield said then, and still maintains, that the injury was not work-related, Hall's medical documents show.
Probably served him right, lazy tennis-playing, slacker. Workers comp fraud if I ever saw it.
Hall says he didn't know in April to insist on workers' compensation, the insurance system that guarantees North Carolinians who suffer injuries on the job 66 percent of their weekly pay, up to $674, until they recover.
He tried once to return to work and was taken out in a wheelchair when the pain in his back became unbearable. In August, after the doctor said he remained unfit to work, Smithfield fired him.
The hazards at these plants was the subject of a widely reported (and widely ignored in North Carolina) investigation conducted by Human Rights Watch in January, which also reported that the companies' claims that falling injury rates show safer conditions are probably not accurate:
Animal-slaughtering and processing plants record some of the highest injury rates in North Carolina: 9.2 cases for each 100 workers in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles the data from interviews with about 8,000 North Carolina employers that are granted anonymity in return for sharing such information.Read the entire article. If you're in a state with meatpacking plants, send it to your Senators and Congressman.
[Human Rights Watch Report author Lance] Compa questions the accuracy of the numbers. "There is enormous pressure not to report injuries," he said. "Especially with injuries that are not visible to the naked eye, the company can always say that you didn't get hurt at work, you got hurt at home moving furniture or working on the car."
The problem has been exacerbated, Compa thinks, with the influx of immigrants to the meat-packing industry.
Forty-two percent of employees in the nation's meat-packing plants are Hispanic, the GAO says. Smithfield declined to discuss the demographic makeup of the work force in the Tar Heel plant.
"They're often afraid to get their name in the system because they're not citizens," Compa said.
From 1998 to 2001, nonfatal injuries in North Carolina meat-packing plants dropped from an annual rate of 18.3 per 100 workers to 9.2, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That dramatic decline, mirrored nationwide, is a direct result of better safety and health programs, industry officials say.
But Compa and the GAO suggest that underreporting skews government surveys conducted to track occupational injury and illness rates. Among the GAO's recommendations to the U.S. Department of Labor: Set up inspection programs that specifically target workplaces that report a large reduction in injuries.
- All US Has To Offer Meat and Poultry Workers Is 'Blood, Sweat and Fear' , January 25, 2005
- Vulnerable Flesh: Human Workers In Animal Slaughterhouses, February 6, 2005