The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined John Morrell & Co. $4.3 million Friday for “willfully ignoring a crippling illness” that struck more than 40% of the employees in its Sioux Falls, S. D., meatpacking plant.
The fine, the largest in OSHA’s 17-year history, came after a long investigation of worker complaints.
OSHA investigators said company records disclosed that 880 of Morrell’s 2,000 employees at the plant sustained serious and sometimes disabling cumulative trauma injuries between May, 1987, and April, 1988. The injuries stemmed from repetitive work on meat cutting assembly lines.
OSHA found that 63 employees had to have surgery for the injuries during the period and that many of them were compelled to go back to the same or comparably dangerous jobs before it was safe to do so.
John A. Pendergrass, the assistant secretary of labor who heads OSHA, charged that Morrell’s management knew about the causes and remedies for the disorders, perhaps as early as 1984, but failed to correct the problems.
“This case involves an employer who knew about a serious health hazard, saw the tragic toll on its workers and chose to ignore it,” Pendergrass said in a formal statement. “Meatpackers in general and Morrell in particular must do a far better job of protecting their workers.”
Morrell, the nation’s fifth-largest meatpacker, has 15 days in which to file an appeal with the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Settlement Called Key
OSHA was criticized earlier this year by the National Safe Workplace Institute of Chicago, a non-profit watchdog group, for settling a number of cases for considerably less than the fine it originally proposed. On Friday, Joseph Kinney, the institute’s executive director, said: “I applaud what OSHA did today, but the ultimate settlement is far more important than the proposed penalty.”
Cumulative trauma disorder is a broad term covering a wide range of injuries caused by repeated arm, hand and wrist motions. The injuries can be extremely painful and permanently disabling. Thomas Armstrong, an occupational health expert at the University of Michigan, said repetitive motion injuries are a growing problem nationwide and exist in “epidemic” proportions in the meatpacking industry.
Morrell, a Cincinnati-based subsidiary of United Brands, issued a lengthy statement asserting that the citations and fines were “grossly unfair and totally unjustified.” Milton J. Schloss, Morrell’s chairman, said the company would seek a federal court injunction “to stop OSHA from singling us out for penalties and impositions of arbitrary standards for what is clearly a national, multi-industry safety and health problem.”
But William J. Wynn, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents about a third of the plant’s workers, said that Friday’s action “finally exposes the ugly truth about health and safety conditions in this plant.”
“Repetitive trauma disorder,” Wynn said, “is a long phrase for incredibly painful hand and wrist disorders that can cripple workers forever. Young men and women who can no longer open a jar or lift their children are the victims of Morrell’s callous, concerted indifference.”
Two common types of cumulative trauma are tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, a potentially crippling injury in which the wrist locks because repetitive motion causes tendons to swell.
Deborah Berkowitz, an occupational safety and health expert with the AFL-CIO, said that the OSHA citation was Morrell’s 10th in the last 19 months. One action, in which OSHA proposed fining Morrell $690,000 for allegedly falsifying its records to hide injuries and illnesses, was thrown out on a technicality last week by a federal administrative law judge, who said, however, that Morrell was “obsessive” in its concern that its injury rates would trigger an OSHA inspection.
Berkowitz applauded OSHA’s action Friday but said the agency had not done nearly enough to deal with cumulative trauma disorders, which she called “the most prevalent form” of industrial injury in the country today.
OSHA spokesman Terry Mikelson said that the cumulative trauma incidence rate at the Sioux Falls plant is nine times greater than the average rate in the meatpacking industry and more than 600 times the rate for all U.S. industries.
Specifically, OSHA cited Morrell for willfully exposing 722 workers to dangers of cumulative trauma disorders without trying to prevent the risk through available engineering or administrative controls, willfully aggravating 71 causes of cumulative trauma problems by not allowing workers sufficient time off or not properly restricting work activity after surgery and willfully exposing some workers to further injury by not allowing them any time off after injuries.
Schloss, Morrell’s chairman, said that OSHA had ignored a “dramatically improved safety record” at the plant in recent months.
But Jim Lyons, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 304A in Sioux Falls, said in a telephone interview that he had seen no improvement. “They keep saying they’ve cleaned up their act,” Lyons said. “We’ve seen none of the things they’re saying they’ve done.
“Today a guy came into the union office who had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome on Monday. He was off for two days. The company had him back in the plant today on what they called a one-handed job. There is no such thing as a one-handed job in this industry,” Lyons said. “He couldn’t do it. He went to first aid; they wouldn’t let him go to the doctor. He left and went to the doctor on his own. That’s the type of attitude we’re still seeing.”