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Union Decries Conditions at Pilgrim’s Pride Chicken Plant

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to call attention to an “epidemic” of repetitive-stress injuries among blue-collar workers, a national labor union filed a federal complaint Tuesday alleging hazardous working conditions at a Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. chicken plant in Texas.

The complaint, filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was brought by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which successfully lobbied for federal ergonomics rules over the last decade only to see them killed in the early days of the Bush administration. Union officials said it is only the first salvo in a campaign to force the government to address debilitating wrist, shoulder and back pain in production work, particularly in industries dominated by low-skilled immigrants.

Poultry processing--in which workers make thousands of small, repetitive motions in each shift--is the third-most dangerous job in America, with one in five workers injured each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although overall injury rates have dropped, those in poultry have climbed in recent years.

In a statement, officials with Pilgrim’s Pride said they had worked hard to reduce injuries at the plant, which employs 1,150 workers in Lufkin, near the Mexican border.

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Federal rules aimed at reducing repetitive-motion injuries were adopted in late 2000, but were repealed by Congress weeks later, with encouragement from the new Bush administration. At the time, the Department of Labor said more study was needed to justify regulations. No new rules have been proposed since then, and employers are no longer required to report such injuries separately.

The union complaint was filed under the general-duty clause of OSHA, which requires employers to provide a “safe and healthy workplace free of recognized hazards.” Jackie Nowell, director of the union’s safety and health office, said she visited the union plant and met employees with debilitating pain and surgical scars.

“I haven’t seen conditions like this in 20 years,” she said. Many workers were undocumented and afraid to complain, she said. “They figure, ‘If I just work through the pain, maybe everyone will leave me alone.’”

However, Jane Brookshire, senior vice president for human relations at Pilgrim’s Pride, said in the statement issued Tuesday, “We emphasize early detection and intervention, provide training on the correct way to perform each job, and when indicated, provide appropriate medical care.”

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Speaking to union leaders at a meeting in New Orleans on Tuesday, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said she will welcome the complaint and take appropriate enforcement action.

The union specifically asks for a team of OSHA doctors and ergonomic specialists to analyze plant operations and to investigate whether injuries have been properly reported. The administration has six months to file charges, and the employer has 15 days to respond. Then charges could be filed with an administrative law judge.

The Labor Department’s chief attorney who would ultimately pursue the case is Eugene Scalia. Scalia’s appointment last month was vigorously opposed by labor unions because of his position on ergonomics, which he once termed “junk science.” In an opinion article, Scalia once wrote that labor unions favored ergonomic rules because they would slow production lines and increase union jobs.

A Labor Department spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on the status of ergonomic regulations or Scalia’s position on such injuries.

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The UFCW filed a spate of OSHA general-duty complaints in the late ‘80s aimed at repetitive-motion injuries in meatpacking plants. They led to more than a dozen settlements, many in the millions of dollars, and to congressional hearings. Eventually, OSHA adopted special guidelines for meatpacking plants, and began work on ergonomic regulations.

Nowell said she expected a similar offensive now from the UFCW and other unions. Her union is looking at several nonunion poultry plants, she said.


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