Labor group wants Tyson scrutinized

Earl Dotter / Oxfam America

From the Wilkes Journal-Patriot:

by Kaitlin Dunn

A representative of a worker right’s organization asked the Wilkesboro Council to require certain things of Tyson Foods Inc. during a public hearing Monday night on the town’s proposed application for a $1.9 million state grant that will help the company expand its local processing operation.

Wilkesboro officials proposed seeking the Community Development Block grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce for designing and building a 100-foot diameter clarifier at the town’s wastewater treatment plant to handle additional wastewater resulting from Tyson’s planned expansion.

Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said earlier that if the grant is approved, Tyson will invest over $14 million in improvements and create as many as 75 new jobs at the company’s cooked products plant in Wilkesboro. The grant requires that at least 60 percent of the new employees be from low to moderate income households and that 46 earn more than the county’s average wage.

Hunter Ogletree, a spokesman for the Morganton-based Western North Carolina Workers Center, said Monday night that “to assure that taxpayer money does not support companies that cut corners on worker safety and jeopardize worker safety and health,” the organization was asking the council to require that Tyson do four things.

Ogletree asked that Tyson be required to:

• comply with all safety and health laws and regulations, including letting workers on poultry lines have use of toilet facilities whenever needed;

• fulfill its obligation to provide adequate medical care to workers injured on the job, maintain a first aid station with proper clinical supervision and “refer all injured and ill workers early on to a doctor if symptoms or signs do not resolve.” He also said company emergency medical technicians and nurses “must not operate beyond their legally allowable scope of practice;”

• not be allowed to maintain a policy of punishing workers by giving them points or other demerits if they take sick leave for work-related illnesses or injuries, if they are sick or have a child who is sick;

• maintain a robust safety and health program with management commitment, training and education of workers on hazards, plant hazard identification, employee involvement evaluation and a program to prevent any retaliation against workers for exercising any right under the health and safety laws.

Mayor Mike Inscore said he would bring these points up with Tyson.

Ogletree said the federal government documented that poultry companies significantly under-report injuries that occur on the job. He noted that OSHA fined Tyson over $250,000 for repeat violations of these reporting requirements last month. According to media reports, these violations occurred at Tyson plants in Texas.

“Because of the dangerous and often inhumane conditions at poultry plants, most plants have, unbelievably, between 50 and 100 percent turnover every year among workers,” he said.

Ogletree said government studies and OSHA citations show poultry companies have routinely delayed adequate medical care to injured workers by not sending them to physicians, thereby exacerbating their injuries.

He said many poultry workers then rely on social insurance programs to help them recover from injuries that resulted from unsafe conditions at plants.

Tyson responds

Gary Mickelson of Tyson Foods responded to the group’s claims in a statement Wednesday.

“Contrary to the claims made by this group, we’re already committed to providing a safe workplace and treating our team members with respect.

“We’re continually focused on improving our workplace safety efforts. We employ almost 500 health and safety professionals throughout our company who are involved in such areas as safety training, audits, ergonomics and health care. We also have programs and policies to help protect our employees. In addition, we require workers to report any workplace injury or illness, so it can be immediately addressed.

“We believe in treating our team members respectfully, which is why we have a code of conduce, core values and a team member Bill of Rights. We also provide a confidential, toll-free help line for workers to report concerns without the fear of retaliation. If a worker needs a restroom break, we give them one.”

Read more from the Wilkes Journal-Patriot.