Kentucky OSHA Widens Tyson Investigation

Five weeks after two workers died at poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc.'s troubled Robards, Ky., processing plant, there has been another accident at the facility.

The most recent accident occurred Aug. 30 when Keith Walsh was crushed under an elevator during cleaning operations. That is an apparent violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lockout regulations, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). Kembra Taylor, general counsel for Kentucky's Labor Cabinet, confirmed the worker suffered "serious back and leg injuries."

In the wake of the most recent incident at Robards, UFCW renewed its call for OSHA to launch a nationwide investigation of Tyson's safety practices. In the meantime, Kentucky OSHA is engaged in three investigations of the Robards complex.

Two workers perished July 23 after falling into a pit of chicken parts at the Robards River Valley plant, which processes chicken for animal food. The investigation into the workers' deaths began the following day, according to Eddie Jacobs, assistant to the secretary of the cabinet for Kentucky OSHA. A second investigation at an adjacent and much-larger Robards processing facility started Aug. 17 as a result of employee complaints.

Kentucky OSHA is conducting a separate investigation of the Aug. 30 accident, Taylor said. Because all three investigations are open, she declined to comment further on any of them.

The July two fatalities appear likely to fuel a complex, ongoing dispute about the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the Tyson facility.

A Tyson spokesperson confirmed that the containment area where the two workers died is considered a "confined space," and asserted that both individuals had training in confined space entry. "The workers didn't use the personal protective equipment that was on site," said Ed Nicholson, who declined to speculate on the cause of their deaths.

UFCW was less guarded, charging Tyson with "recklessness" for operating "an open pit of decomposing chicken parts." A lack of oxygen means they are "confined spaces." OSHA regulations discourage these types of confined spaces.

According to the union, the first death occurred when James Dame was lowered by a crane into the pit to retrieve a bucket that had dropped into the mixture of chicken parts. Dame, overcome by methane fumes, fell into the pit. Mike Hallum, who Nicholson said was a supervisor at River Valley, was lowered into the pit to rescue Dame, only to suffer the same fate.

"It is immoral to require workers to risk death on the job when these tragedies are preventable," UFCW President Doug Dority said.

OSHA regulations require employers to restrict entry to confined spaces because a lack of oxygen or the presence of gases could endanger a worker. PPE that the two workers did not use included a self-contained oxygen supply, Nicholson said.

Further complicating the safety situation of workers at Tyson's plants is a lawsuit brought by UFCW charging the company with wage and hour violations. The union alleges workers are not being paid for the time it takes to put on company-provided PPE, Nicholson said. "Our claim, he said, "is that it doesn't take them very long to put it on."

The River Valley facility 40 workers, Nicholson said. The adjacent processing plant produces food for human consumption and employs about 1,000 workers.

The two ongoing investigations at the two plants are not the first time Kentucky OSHA has visited the facilities. In January 1999, at the company's request, state officials conducted a consultative survey at the larger plant.

Kentucky OSHA also inspected the two facilities in November 1997 as a result of an employee complaint, Jacobs said. Hudson Foods, which owned the complex at the time, was cited at the larger plant for four serious violations, including the use of PPE. Tyson bought Hudson in January 1998 and paid $8,075 in fines.

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