The mother of the most recent Tyson employee to die on the job, accompanied by poultry industry activists, met with OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress on Oct. 27 in Washington, D.C., and emerged with a promise that the agency will closely monitor investigations of all recent poultry plant deaths.
The Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance (DPJA) has joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in demanding OSHA investigate Tyson Foods' safety program. So far, OSHA has resisted the pressure to target Tyson.
According to DPJA, seven Tyson employees have been killed on the job in the past seven months. The most recent victim, Charles Shepperd, whose skull was crushed Oct. 8 after he fell into the "chiller" room at Tyson's Berlin, Md., plant, appears to be attracting the most attention.
This may be due, in part, to the efforts of DPJA, an alliance of people and organizations in eastern Delaware, Maryland and Virginia that is a vocal critic of the poultry industry.
It may also be because Shepperd's mother, Lillie Shepperd, has not only found her way to Jeffress' office, but has hired a lawyer and is accusing Tyson or one of its employees of "gross negligence" in the death of her son.
"My son knew how to do this work," Shepperd said at a press conference on the steps of the Labor Department. "And I don't think he fell. I think it was gross negligence."
Shepperd later explained that she believes her son was in the chiller when somebody else "either accidentally or intentionally" turned on the machine that killed him.
Tyson spokesperson Ed Nicholson declined to comment on the details of Shepperd's death because the incident is under investigation by Maryland. Nicholson maintained that the Berlin accident and the other incidents mentioned by DPJA are not reflective of Tyson's overall safety record.
"We have 56,000 people working in an industrial environment," Nicholson said. "When compared with other industries, our record of lost work days is very low." Prior to this year's string of fatalities, Tyson had gone more than 600 million man-hours without a death, he added.
Nicholson also disputed the DPJA death tally, arguing that two of the seven dead workers were not Tyson employees, but worked for company subcontractors. According to OSHA's recently completed investigation, one of the two workers died of natural causes in Carthage, Texas, the agency spokesperson said.
The remaining five workers died in Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia, states with OSHA state plans, so the federal agency can do little more than monitor those ongoing investigations, Jeffress said.
When asked if, in light of the spate of recent fatalities, Tyson is re-examining its safety management, Nicholson replied that the company has "redoubled the effort to ensure that we minimize the risks."