A team of Observer editors and reporters spent nearly two years interviewing over 200 poultry workers and examining industry documents. They ultimately focused their investigation on House of Raeford Farms, a privately held company based in Raeford, N.C., and one of the Carolinas’ largest poultry producers.
The series, “The Cruelest Cuts: The Human Cost of Bringing Poultry to Your Table,” maintains that House of Raeford Farms covered up the extent of on-the-job injuries, dismissed workers’ requests to see doctors, pressured employees to return to work hours after being treated for injuries, often found ways to fire injured employees and neglected recordkeeping requirements.
Reporters spoke to former and current employees who suffered from cysts caused by repetitive motion work, musculoskeletal injuries, broken arms and severed fingertips. In addition to those injuries, the series recounted the host of safety problems surrounding the fatal incident of an employee falling into an auger machine: the auger lacked a protective guard, the catwalk was not equipped with adequate safety railings and the worker was not wearing a harness.
“The Cruelest Cuts” also indicates that House of Raeford relies on a largely immigrant, non-English speaking workforce, as these employees often are less likely to speak up about safety violations for fear of losing their jobs.
Senate, House Step In
The Charlotte Observer reported that the series prompted responses from Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, an official with the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission and others.
Congressional leaders and aides are planning hearings on worker safety within the poultry industry, the paper reported, with Miller indicating he hoped to schedule a hearing in the spring.
A Kennedy staffer, meanwhile, said the senator intends to discuss safety in the poultry industry in a subcommittee meeting in early April, as well as in a full-committee meeting later in the month. The hearings will address workplace issues, including those reported in the Observer investigation, the staffer said.
House of Raeford Responds
House of Raeford issued a statement in response to the Observer series, asserting that “maintaining and improving the quality and safety of our employees’ workplace is a continuous priority for our company.”
“We are disappointed that the newspaper chose to highlight allegations of a small number of former employees, many of whose cases we identified as factually incomplete or inaccurate,” the company stated.
House of Raeford also pointed out that in an industry with a high turnover rate, many of its employees have remained with the company for 20 years or more. Additionally, the company cited career advancement opportunities for all workers, as well as the poultry industry’s recent partnership with OSHA to improve performance and safety within the industry.
“Our company has seen a decrease in the rate at which injuries and illnesses occur among its workers,” the statement read. “As of 2007, our rate of injuries per 100 full-time workers is less than the average rate for the entire food manufacturing sector. Over the past 7 years, our company has reduced by half the lost-time accident rate, a reflection of our management’s constant focus on improving safety.”
Coinciding with the release of “The Cruelest Cuts,” the National Chicken Council highlighted Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data indicating that the injury and illness rates within the poultry industry are on the decline. The poultry industry’s injury and illness rates did decrease in recent years, from 14.2 in 2000 to 7.4 in 2005 to 6.6 in 2006. The rate for all private industry, however, is 4.4. For more information, read Poultry Industry Strives to Improve Worker Safety.
To read “The Cruelest Cuts” series, visit http://www.charlotte.com/poultry.