The Occupational Safety and Health Administration today fined John Morrell & Co. $4.33 million, the largest fine ever against a single employer, for what the agency said were hundreds of “willful safety and health violations” at the meatpacker’s Sioux Falls, S.D., plant.
OSHA said Morrell knew as early as 1984 that working conditions at the plant were causing “serious and sometimes disabling cumulative trauma injuries” but did nothing to change those conditions.
The company’s own injury and illness records showed that 880 of 2,000 employees at the plant sustained such injuries, caused by long periods of repetitive motion, from May, 1987, to April, 1988, the government said.
“This case involves an employer who knew about a serious health hazard, saw the tragic toll on its workers and chose to ignore it,” said Assistant Labor Secretary John A. Pendergrass.
OSHA officials said ergonomics specialists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found during an inspection begun six months ago that 722 employees were being exposed daily to a significant risk of cumulative trauma disorders from repeated hand, wrist and arm motions.
Pendergrass said the incidence of cumulative trauma disorders among workers at the Sioux Falls plant was nine times greater than the meatpacking industry average of 4.8 per 100 full-time workers per year and 600 times the rate for all U.S. industries.
Morrell said in a statement that it considers the fine “grossly unfair and totally unjustified.” The company hinted that it might take the matter to court.
Pendergrass said that many of the disorders could have been easily prevented.
“The design of knives, for instance, can reduce trauma,” Pendergrass said, adding that the biggest improvement needed was a change in the “attitudes of management.”