Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Clueless in Carolina

The recent Human Rights Watch report about hazardous working conditions in this country’s meatpacking plants seems to have puzzled some North Carolinians. North Carolina is home of the Smithfield's plant in Bladen County, one of the plants covered in the report.

State Department of Labor officials said that all six of pork giant Smithfield Foods' North Carolina meatpacking plants have generated only 19 worker safety complaints and three accident reports in the last two decades.

The Republican Labor Commissioner seemed totally clueless:
State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry declined Wednesday to comment on the report. She said she had not seen it and didn't know where to find it. She said she knew nothing about Human Rights Watch.
It's right here, Cherie.

The state OSHA director seems a little more aware of real life: "If there are accidents, I wonder if they are just not calling," said Allen McNeely, director of the Labor Department's Division of Occupational Safety and Health. "Knowing what I know about employees, sometimes they don't feel like they can call us without some kind of retaliation."

McNeely also noted that the state OSHA is hardly in a position to know everything that goes on in a meatpacking plant: The Labor Department also does random inspections of plants but has a shortage of workers. McNeely said he has about 110 inspectors to handle 230,000 North Carolina workplaces. Since 1987, the department has done five random inspections of Smithfield's plants.
Lance Compa, a Cornell University professor who wrote the Human Rights Watch report, said Wednesday that he interviewed about 50 workers at three meatpacking plants: the Tar Heel [NC] pork plant, a poultry plant in Arkansas and a beef plant in Nebraska. He said nearly every worker had evidence of being injured at work.

He said employees told him serious accidents happen weekly.


Compa, who studies labor relations and is a former union organizer, said worker safety programs across the country are underfunded and understaffed. Even when officials cite companies for violations, Compa said, they often don't have the authority to punish them seriously.

In his report, Compa cites the N.C. Labor Department's handling of the 2003 Tar Heel death as evidence that worker safety laws lack teeth. The worker died after being overcome by fumes inside a giant chemical holding tank.

The Department of Labor found that the man was a new employee who had not been properly trained or supervised while working with dangerous chemicals. Smithfield paid $4,323 in fines, according to a report the state submitted to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

McNeely said the state imposed all the fines that state and federal regulations allow.