Sunday, February 22, 2004

Describing the Lives of Workers

Carlos works for a cleaning company that is subcontracted by the Excel plant, a common arrangement in the Nebraska meatpacking industry. He is paid to sanitize the plant, to clear out the meat left in the machinery, to hose the blood off the kill floor. If he cleans his area by the end of his seven-hour shift he receives a bonus. If he falls behind, even for a night, he can lose his bonus for the entire week. The pressure encourages Carlos and his co-workers to cut corners. They don’t follow the time-consuming machinery-lock-out/tag-out procedure required by OSHA. As the World-Herald explained, “Locking out is the equivalent of turning off a light in your house by going to the basement, turning off the circuit breaker and inserting a padlock that prevents others from turning it back on.” There isn’t time for that.
“Move your ass,” the supervisors have yelled at Carlos as he worked. They know that there are plenty of other immigrants who want these jobs, even at a starting wage of $6.50 an hour. And Carlos thinks it would be tough to find a new job with his forged identity documents and limited English.
This is from an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that told of two Omaha World Herald reporters, Jeremy Olson and Steve Jordon, who courageously compiled a series on the hazards faced by meatpacking plant cleaners -- even after the Nebraska Cattlemen association had organized an advertising and subscription boycott against the paper in reaction to a 1997 series on an E. coli outbreak at a meatpacking plant.

The Review also discussed the difficulty that dedicated reporters -- and OSHA -- have finding information on the injuries of these workers. Because the cleaners are contract workers, they aren't classified with meatpacking workers. Instead they are lumped into an industry category with office janitors and hotel maids. The problem here is that OSHA targets it inspections at those industry groups that have high injury rates. Because these workers are lumped in with workers with a much lower injury rate,
the true danger of their work has escaped the scrutiny of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And because the majority of the cleaners, like Carlos, are working with false documents, they don’t complain about conditions that routinely lead to acid burns, crushed bones, amputated limbs. Sometimes to death.
Because these workers slipped under OSHA's radar,
It was ultimately Workers’ Compensation Court files that provided Olson with the bulk of the information he needed to dig into the investigation. The files confirmed the scenes Carlos had described in the plant: hand crushed in rollers when worker tried to catch a scrubbing pad that he dropped; worker cleaning table loses fingers in pinch point of a table; hand crushed between rollers and belt while wiping grease off machine. Olson spent weeks creating spreadsheets that detailed the names of the cleaning contractors, their injured employees and the nature of the injuries. Stacked-up manila file folders crowded his small cubicle. In the end, he calculated that one in every ten cleaners working in the meatpacking industry will suffer a severe work-related illness or injury each year; that the meatpacking cleaners have an injury rate four times greater than those of the jobs they are grouped with; that meatpacking cleaners were more prone to severe injury than the meatpackers themselves.
What makes cleaning so dangerous is that it exposes workers to the “pinch points” of industrial plants. Bits of meat and grease stick to the teeth of grinders; they drip behind safety guards, and they dangle from gears and chains.

The safety barriers that protect daytime workers become impediments at night, because cleaners have to get around and behind them to thoroughly sanitize the plant.
And, as often happens, it took the news articles to make the state government aware of the working conditions of the employees they are supposed to be protecting.
Jose Santos, the worker rights coordinator for the meatpacking industry in the Nebraska Department of Labor, confessed that when he read the story on-line, it was the first time he was made aware of the hazards afflicting the cleaners. He said he is grateful for the important investigation the World-Herald did and is now working closely with OSHA on the issue. Nobody in the industry pulled any advertising.
The series in the World Herald can be found here. Scroll down to "On the job of last resort"