WASHINGTON — Saying companies that ignore workplace hazards face little more than a "slap on the wrist," lawmakers on Tuesday called for stiffer penalties and stronger enforcement against chronic violators.
"Poultry workers' health and safety is threatened every day in a variety of ways," Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said in written comments for a Senate subcommittee hearing focused on workplace safety.
"Their hands are crippled by hours on an assembly line that moves too fast. They are forced to work when they are sick or seriously hurt. Yet OSHA sits on the sidelines, ignoring such problems."
Witnesses told Kennedy and other senators on the panel that in poultry plants and other factories nationwide, grueling job conditions and preventable deaths have illustrated the need for more robust safety laws and enforcement.
It was the first of three scheduled congressional hearings prompted by a series of articles in The Charlotte Observer that focused on working conditions in the poultry industry, where thousands of workers are hurt each year as they cut and package chicken and turkeys for stores, restaurants and cafeterias.
The Observer reported that House of Raeford, a leading poultry company based in North Carolina, has masked the extent of injuries inside its plants. Employees said the company has ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job.
The company, like many in the poultry industry, has come to rely heavily on Latino workers who often fear that complaining about job conditions may get them fired or deported.
One workplace safety expert representing a federation of unions told senators that House of Raeford represents what he sees as a growing pattern: large corporations ignoring their obligations to ensure workers aren't harmed by their jobs.
Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator for union group Change to Win, testified that N.C. regulators "have utterly failed to carry out their own mandate to protect the people at House of Raeford." His 6 million-member group includes poultry, carpentry and textile workers.
House of Raeford has said it follows the law and strives to protect workers. Company officials didn't testify at the hearing and couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday. Other poultry companies say they, too, have worked to improve safety.
"The facts demonstrate we have a good record, that worker safety is a very important value in the industry, that we are concerned for our associates and employees," said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
The Observer found that weak enforcement, minimal fines and dwindling inspections have allowed companies to operate largely unchecked.
In the poultry industry, fines for serious violations — including conditions that could cause deaths and disabling injuries — are usually cut by more than half, to an average of about $1,100.
"I've had young kids come up to me and say, "My dad's life was only worth $3,000?" said Jerry Scannell, who headed the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the first President Bush. "The penalty has got to be significant enough to be a deterrent to others too."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the subcommittee chair, spoke of the "horrifying and rampant" abuses detailed by the Observer and said she would like to see far stiffer penalties against "corporate bad actors."
She and Kennedy have introduced legislation that calls for up to 40 percent higher fines — as much as $100,000 for willful and repeat violations — and criminal penalties for repeat and willful violations of safety laws.
"I am very concerned because the evidence shows that in the last seven years, OSHA has been dangerously ineffective," Murray said.
Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat who serves on the committee but was campaigning for the presidency in Pennsylvania, said in a written statement that "OSHA needs to be reinvigorated."
He called for additional inspectors and better ways to identify the most dangerous employers. He also said OSHA must increase penalties for violators.
Senators and witnesses at the hearing said OSHA needs to look beyond individual incidents and start hunting for unsafe patterns.
"Too frequently, the same companies are cited over and over again," Kennedy said. "But OSHA's enforcement program fails to connect the dots."
Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said higher fines alone won't change a company's willingness to look the other way when it comes to unsafe conditions.
When OSHA finds companies with a pattern of workplace safety problems, it should assign compliance officers to follow up until all problems have been fixed, he said.
"It's those kinds of things that get to the meat of the coconut more than beating your chest that you tripled fines," he said.
Several lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing said the Observer's findings helped highlight the need for additional resources, better standards and the authority to impose tougher penalties.
"But the biggest single obstacle to effective intervention is simple lack of political will," Frumin, the union official, testified.
One longtime poultry worker invited senators to imagine a workday at her plant.
Doris Morrow, who works at a Tyson Foods plant in Robards, Ky., brought an 18-inch-high stack of folded clothing that she said she must wear each workday to cope with frigid temperatures inside the plant.
She said some workers have contracted frostbite on their hands and feet. Others, she said, have developed back problems from repeated lifting and serious hand injuries from the strain of making more than 25,000 cuts a day.
Many, however, won't complain about working conditions for fear of losing their jobs, she said.
Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson said Morrow's testimony included exaggerations and inaccuracies. He said the area where she works averages 46 degrees and that the company has had no reports of workers contracting frostbite. The company has reduced injuries through automation and other efforts, he said.
But Morrow said there's no question workers are suffering.
"It is time to demand that the government and companies protect workers and prevent these injuries," she said.