Delaware Online: Working at Delaware chicken plants can lead to lost fingers, skin and most recently, a man’s life

by Maddy Lauria | Delaware News Journal | October 19, 2018

This weekend, a 59-year-old Bridgeville man will be memorialized after a serious work injury at one of southern Delaware’s chicken processing plants led to his death in early October.

Workers sort chicken legs into left and right legs to enter the deboning machine at Allen Harim processing plant in Harbeson in this file photo.

The victim was not named by police in a release outlining the accident, but an obituary published in the Cape Gazette and independently confirmed by The News Journal identified him as Rene Arauz, a Nicaraguan native and father of three.

Arauz died at Beebe Hospital in Lewes on Oct. 5 after a pallet jack battery fell on him while he was replacing it at the plant, according to police. A service will be held in Georgetown Saturday morning, followed by interment in Nicaragua at a later date, the obituary states.

Arauz’s death follows more than a dozen worker safety violations at the Harbeson-area plant over the last several years, as outlined by citations issued by OSHA.

That includes an incident last year in which a worker lost a finger at the plant.

Both serious injuries come on the heels of a lengthy reprimand to the plant’s operators in 2015, in which OSHA said Allen Harim was failing to properly report injuries, that its facility lacked proper medical oversight and that “the medical management practices at this facility create an environment of fear and distrust.”

A worker died Oct. 5 following an industrial accident at Allen Harim’s poultry processing plant in Harbeson.
Jason Minto, The News Journal

OSHA also found that, in some cases, employees had to wait up to 40 minutes to use the bathroom and that conditions at the plant “were causing or likely to cause serious physical harm to employees” due to the repetitive motions and hard labor required in a chicken processing plant.

Those conditions, which OSHA said were exacerbated by a lack of proper equipment, were likely leading to “musculoskeletal disorders including, but not limited to, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger thumb and shoulder pain.”

OSHA proposed $38,000 in penalties for those violations, which the company challenged. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor, Allen Harim and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 27 entered into a formal settlement that requires the company to address the worker safety violations by upgrading equipment and training and other “abatement” measures.

Allen Harim also agreed to pay a $13,000 penalty – one-third of what was originally proposed. The settlement also includes a nonadmission of guilt for the allegations outlined in OSHA’s citations.

Representatives from Allen Harim did not respond to requests for comment. A union representative declined to comment.

James Fisher, spokesman for the Delmarva Poultry Industry, said “employee safety is of utmost importance to the poultry industry” and said injury and illness rates in this sector are lower than other agricultural industries.

Workers trim fat from chicken leg meat at the Allen Harim processing plant in Harbeson in this file photo.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 8,000 injuries are reported by the poultry processing industry nationwide each year, with a slight year-over-year increase in injuries, but a slight decrease in illnesses, from 2014 to 2016.

Fisher said the 2016 rate of illness and injury of 4.2 cases per 100 workers represents an 82 percent improvement since 1994. He said more than a dozen of Delmarva’s processing plants, hatcheries and feed mills received recognition from the Joint Industry Safety and Health Council, which is comprised of representatives from other poultry industry councils, for their “records of improving workplace safety” based on injury statistics and other evaluations.

Fisher did not comment on the recent fatal accident in Harbeson.

Allen Harim, noted as the nation’s 21st largest poultry producer in previous reporting by The News Journal, employs nearly 1,500 workers at its Harbeson plant. There were more than 18,000 chicken employees in the region in 2017, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry.

OSHA in the past has cited the company for failing to properly report injuries at its Harbeson plant.

While the Oct. 5 death is the only fatal accident reported in recent years related to Delaware’s chicken plants, workers are exposed to dangers in an industrial setting where millions of chickens are slaughtered, deboned, sliced and packaged into the grill-ready chicken breasts and thighs sitting on refrigerated store shelves.

Delaware State Police declined to verify the number of deaths at Delaware chicken plants without a Freedom of Information Act request, but the Division of Forensic Science said there has been only one recorded since 2015. The News Journal is waiting for a response on that FOIA request.

Since that 2015 notice to Allen Harim, OSHA has found several other violations at the plant that federal officials say could be placing employees in harm’s way. Three reported incidents this year, including October’s fatality, remain under investigation.

OSHA has six months to complete its investigation of the fatal accident. Delaware State Police said on Wednesday that the case remains under investigation, pending results from the Delaware Division of Forensic Science.

Other poultry plant violations

Allen Harim’s feed mill in Seaford also has been cited by OSHA for worker safety violations in the past. That includes an incident reported in 2013 related to combustible material. Because of the age of the report, the original citation has been archived by OSHA.

Mountaire Farms

Violations have been found at Mountaire Farms’ Millsboro-area plant in 2010, 2015 and twice in 2018, while OSHA inspections have found violations at the company’s plant in Selbyville annually since 2015 and at least once in 2011, according to OSHA.

Those citations include allegations similar to those at Allen Harim’s Harbeson plant concerning the risk of serious injury from performing stressful, manual tasks without proper equipment. In 2016, OSHA found that workers cutting and deboning meat also were exposed to conditions likely to result in musculoskeletal disorders.

Mountaire Farms’ chicken processing plant near Millsboro, shown here, has faced far fewer OSHA citations than the company’s plant in Selbyville. The company has contested some of those citations.
Jason Minto, The News Journal

OSHA has imposed a $30,823 penalty for those violations, which the company contested. Additional violations found in 2016 and 2017 regarding employee exposure to ammonia and phosphoric acid – which carry more than $20,000 in additional penalties – also are being challenged by the company.

Company spokeswoman Cathy Bassett referred to a recent industry award for worker safety as well as education and training at those facilities but did not directly respond to the violations OSHA inspectors found.

“Safety has always been our number one priority and a very important part of our corporate culture,” she said in an email. “We work closely with OSHA to identify and correct issues before they become a problem.”

Perdue Farms

Perdue Farms also has a history of worker-related dangers. No violations were found at Perdue’s Georgetown plant, according to OSHA records, but the Milford facility has had at least one a year since 2015.

Two of Perdue Farms’ organic chickens roam outside at one of its farms.
Perdue Farms image

Those violations included serious injuries in 2017. In February, an employee pressure washing a conveyor system got an arm stuck in the conveyor, which ripped the skin off.

Eight months later, another employee’s work glove got stuck in a piece of equipment, which crushed three fingers. That injury resulted in the amputation of the employee’s ring and middle fingers down to the first knuckle and the removal of the fingertip of the index finger.

Joe Forsthoffer, director of corporate communications at Perdue, said those injuries were related to what is called the “lock-out” or “tag-out” process to ensure equipment is turned off before any maintenance or sanitation work begins. He said the company is working with a third party, as part of the OSHA settlement for those violations, to review that process.

“We regularly audit and assess our plant safety processes to continuously improve workplace safety,” he said in an email. “Our Milford plant currently has more than one million safe production hours, and Georgetown is closing on five million, with OSHA incident rates significantly less than those for the manufacturing sector as a whole.”

Since the first violations at Perdue in 2009, as recorded by OSHA’s enforcement inspections online database, the company has faced less than $100,000 in penalties and only paid a fraction of that amount through formal and informal settlements.

Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.