January 15, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

One of the country’s biggest poultry processing companies provides an in-house nursing station to treat work-related injuries, but the clinic may be in violation of state licensing standards. In a letter to Wayne Farms’ plant in Jack, Alabama, OSHA indicates that practices and policies of the company’s medical management program are “out-of-date and contrary to good medical practice.” The nurses’ station is staffed by licensed practical nurses (LPNs) who are supervised by a compliance manager who is trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT). When I checked, the Alabama Board of Nursing’s code requires LPNs to work under the direction of a registered nurse or physician.

But that’s not the only problem with Wayne Farms’ management of its injured poultry workers. OSHA’s letter notes:

“One worker was seen in the nursing station 94 times before referral to a physician.”

and this:

“The LPNs follow medical management directives that were developed approximately ten years ago by Dr. Alan Young, a local physician, and Wayne Farms’ employees who were also EMTs.”  Dr. Young told OSHA “he does not have a written agreement with or supervisory role over Wayne Farms’ nursing staff.”

and this:

“We recommend that you review [the requirements of Alabama’s Nurse Practice Act and the Alabama Administrative Code] to ensure that Wayne Farms is not placing its LPN staff in a situation where they are likely to be in violation of State licensing laws.”

Kudos to OSHA for publicizing these findings. It confirms what I’ve heard and read poultry workers describe: being sent over and over again to the company nurses who give them extra doses of Advil and hot compresses and then send them back to the production line. The worker’s injury only gets worse, the situation that caused the injury is not corrected, and the company can claim a low-injury rate because the multiple trips to the nurses’ station are only considered first-aid—not a lost-time injury. (One Wayne Farms plant boasts of 3 million work hours without a lost-time injury.) I only hope these LPNs at Wayne Farms’ plant don’t become the company’s scapegoats. Somebody up the chain-of-command knew exactly what was going on.

Wayne Farms is the sixth largest poultry producer in the US. It operates 11 poultry processing facilities, produces annually more than 2.5 billion pounds of poultry products, and had more than $1.9 billion in annual sales last year. Their plants are located in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. They sell their products under the names: Wayne Farms, Dutch Quality House, and Platinum Harvest.

OSHA’s letter to Wayne Farms comes after an inspection last year prompted by a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of poultry workers. That inspection found serious and repeat violations for a variety of safety hazards, including those that led to musculoskeletal injuries among the company’s poultry processing workers. Those violations were issued under OSHA’s “general duty clause.”

The poultry industry trade association has been quick to come to Wayne Farms’ defense. (It doesn’t hurt matters that the Director of the US Poultry & Egg Association, Elton Maddox, is also the Chairman, President & CEO of Wayne Farms.) Last month the trade association issued a news release challenging the grounds for OSHA’s citations. They assert that OSHA failed to provide “specific evidence of hazards” in the agency’s use of its “general duty clause.”  When I read the citations against Wayne Farms —even just this one small part—-the evidence is plenty specific:

“Employees are required to manually lift, carry and lower approximately 75 pound totes while moving them from fill stations to the scale and then removing them from the scale and stacking them from floor level up to 5 totes high (approximately 48 inches).”

I’d like to see how long Mr. Elton Maddox could lift, carry and lower 75 pound totes before he realized the task is hazardous? Better yet, how many times would poultry industry executives want their spouse or children working in a poultry processing plant to be sent to a nurses’ station for a hot compress before the company’s LPN referred them for more appropriate care? What would poultry industry executives say if their physicians hadn’t updated their standards of practices for 10 years?

The poultry industry’s trade association says its “future success are in danger of being hampered by unclear rules and arbitrary actions like those demonstrated by OSHA.” I’d gladly pay more for the chicken I eat if I knew that poultry workers were being protected from crippling injuries to their hands, arms and backs. Would you?

 

 

 

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