August 2, 2016 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 2Comment

It sounds like malpractice to me. That’s what I’ve been thinking ever since learning how poultry workers are treated (and not treated) for work-related injuries.

The latest example comes from Pilgrim’s Pride, the largest US poultry processing company. Last week OSHA issued the first-ever citation in the industry for inappropriate medical care of repetitive motion injuries. The citation indicated:

“The employer failed to make timely appropriate medical referrals for employees with injuries related to chronic and acute exposures and incidents, heavy lifting and persistent and continuous pain in the upper extremities to prevent the development and/or minimize the severity of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).”

OSHA identified the malpractice at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Live Oak, Florida. The agency’s area director said:

“Referring an employee for medical attention in a timely manner is critical in order to prevent musculoskeletal disorders or further injury,” said Brian Sturtecky, OSHA’s area director in Jacksonville. “Having employees visit a first-aid room for ‘in-house treatment’ over a course of weeks or months without a referral to a physician can lead to additional long-lasting injuries for employees. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure workers are protected from workplace injuries.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center which has represented poultry workers who have been retaliated against for raising safety concerns said this about the OSHA citation against Pilgrim’s Pride:

“The poultry industry must stop destroying workers’ bodies to make its products. It is no secret that poultry plants rarely provide health care and even actively discourage workers from seeking care to keep injury statistics low. Too often, the only thing these workers can count on after years of service is being fired when they become too injured or disabled to work.”

It’s not the first time that we’ve learned about improper medical care for poultry workers who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and other ergonomic injuries.  At a Wayne Farms plant in Jack, Alabama, OSHA obtained records that showed a worker:

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

I wrote last year about Wayne Farms’ practices. The company had an in-house nursing station where workers were required to seek treatment of work-related injuries. Wayne Farms set up the nursing station in a manner that likely led the staff—-licensed practical nurses (LPNs)—- to violate the state’s licensing standards. Instead of working under the direction of a registered nurse or physician, as required by the state’s board of nursing, the LPNs were supervised by someone only trained as an EMT. And the medical protocols they followed were at least 10 years old.  Time and time again, the hand, wrist, and other repetitive motion-related injuries suffered by the employees, were treated with doses of ibuprofen and hot compresses. Workers would swallow the pills and be sent back to the processing line.

In that case, OSHA put Wayne Farms on notice. The company received a letter from OSHA listing a host of problems with the medical care being provided.  In last week’s case involving Pilgrim’s Pride, the agency went beyond just sending a letter. It issued a citation.

The Center for Progressive Reform’s Matt Shudtz gave credit to OSHA for the citation against Pilgrim’s Pride which could set an important precedent:

“The poultry slaughter industry loves to tout its declining injury rates, but outside experts have many reasons to believe the industry’s cooking its books. This isn’t the first time OSHA’s investigators have uncovered the sophisticated sabotage of worker protections. That’s why it is so important for OSHA’s lawyers to carry this case through and hold Pilgrim’s Pride accountable. Make no mistake, the rest of the industry is watching.”

OSHA’s citation offers a list of ways for Pilgrim’s Pride to ensure injured workers receive appropriate medical care. This includes consulting with a physician who is Board Certified in Occupational Medicine. This will help to assure that medical management protocols are appropriate to identify symptoms associated with potential early-stage musculoskeletal disorders…to allow for early and appropriate medical interventions.

Former OSHA official Debbie Berkowitz, who is now with the National Employment Law Project said:

“Unfortunately, the issues found at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant are all too common throughout the industry. ….At another plant in Delaware, OSHA found the company had turned its first aid station into an office to prevent workers from reporting an injury altogether. In these plants, workers are not allowed to seek medical treatment without the companies’ permission—otherwise they are penalized and written up, which can lead to job loss.”

Withholding care, failing to refer a patient for appropriate treatment, dismissing symptoms as “just part of the job,” deviating from professional codes of conduct and standards of practice. It sounds like medical malpractice to me. What’s new and significant is the offender is a poultry company, and not just any poultry company: it’s Pilgrim’s Pride, the largest poultry company in the U.S.

 

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